Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull crosses the line on 457 visas

“When the dogs are baying for blood or at your throat, there is one foolproof way to deal with them. You get a great big hunk of raw meat and you heave it as far as you can away from you.” The imagery and the wisdom is quintessential Paul Keating. The former Labor prime minister used to delight in telling press gallery journalists about his prowess in crisis management and, in fact, everything else.

On Tuesday, his admirer, now a resident of The Lodge, adopted the raw meat strategy. Malcolm Turnbull strode into the prime ministerial courtyard at Parliament House alongside Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. With all the conviction he could muster he said: “Good afternoon. Today we are announcing that we are abolishing the 457 visas. We are ensuring that Australian jobs and Australian values are first, placed first.” In one sentence he adopted the populism he had so stridently condemned in Labor’s Bill Shorten as well as the racist dog whistle he finds so abhorrent in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation rhetoric.

Gallery journalists, who for the previous two days had been pestering Turnbull’s press office for a reply to the latest negative assessment of his government from a vengeful Tony Abbott, were ignored. Then on Tuesday morning, the word went out: “A big announcement is coming.” Speculation went wild. Was it some pre-budget blockbuster on housing affordability? Or even something on the role Australia would play in the latest North Korean provocation?

Feeding the budget thought was the mess the government got itself into the previous week. There were many reports of Treasurer Scott Morrison being in the middle of a bunfight with other cabinet ministers on the best way to deal with housing affordability. The different views turned up in the media, much to the frustration of the government’s chief parliamentary tactician, Christopher Pyne. On national television he urged his colleagues to pull their heads in and show more discipline and political smarts.

Then there was former prime minister Tony Abbott showing a brilliant understanding of media strategy by utilising the political news vacuum created by the Easter holiday to provide some. He grabbed huge national attention by penning an opinion piece for The Daily Telegraph on Easter Monday, this setting the scene for his first regular appearance on Ray Hadley’s high-rating Radio 2GB talk show. The coverage was enormous. It ran all day on radio news bulletins and was high in the three commercial networks’ TV news programs that evening. It spilled over into the next morning’s major newspapers. Keating’s image of a dog at your throat was particularly apt. Abbott spoke about the widespread unhappiness he encountered with the people he spoke to along the route of his Pollie Pedal charity fundraising bike ride.

He wrote: “There’s the usual grizzling about poor roads, not enough services, and out-of-touch government. There’s the now common anxiety about selling the farm to foreigners.” He went on to talk about the added frustration with everyone in politics, thoughtfully mentioning “governments that don’t deliver”. And just to ram home the point, he noted that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. He found “an expectation that Shorten could soon be in The Lodge”.

In what is described as a new high-water mark for visual metaphors, Nine News that night showed a garbage truck emptying wheelie bins as Abbott willingly expounded on his views in a doorstop interview outside his house. Whether it is a metaphor for him trashing Turnbull or him talking rubbish depends on your point of view. But his theme of immigrants needing to join Team Australia like everyone else was picked up in the Turnbull–Dutton announcement foreshadowing tougher citizenship rules. Abbott’s reference, of course, goes back to his criticism as prime minister of Middle Eastern immigrants who foster Muslim extremism in their families.

Turnbull told a business breakfast, “Changes to citizenship will enable our migration program to contribute still further to our social cohesion while enhancing our security. Australia must continue to attract people who will embrace our values and positively contribute, regardless of nationality or religious belief.” This talk is making Liberals in marginal city seats very nervous. They are more than happy for the prime minister to beat the drum of “Australians first for Australian jobs” but any hint of second-class citizens with restricted access to social security and Medicare is a recipe for a severe electoral backlash in their minds. It may save some seats in Queensland but would put at risk seats now on a knife edge in Sydney and Melbourne.

Abbott in his radio interview called for a pause on immigration, feeding into the populist perception that migrants take Australian jobs. In fact, as Deloitte Access Economics points out, immigration has been a major driver of economic growth. But it’s the same perception that has made the mere mention of 457 visas politically toxic. In “abolishing” these visas Turnbull is responding to research that has found strong resentment of their existence. It was a resentment that, up until this week, Turnbull accused Labor’s Bill Shorten of fostering for base political motives. 

It is sobering to compare the way Turnbull announced his visa crackdown, tying it to the fears and prejudices that feed racism, with his criticism of Labor’s campaign against the visas. Two years ago, he said, “Since mid-2013, responding to the wind-down in construction, the number of 457 workers in Australia has decreased, while the number of 457 visa holders from China account for only 6 per cent of the total. And yet that hasn’t stopped some outrage, outbursts of economic chauvinism from the Labor side of politics.”

But Turnbull’s descent into the same crass political opportunism is being welcomed among his ranks. One delighted Liberal MP greeted the Tuesday news conference as spectacular and says she didn’t see it coming. It certainly got the media talking about something else other than the government’s Abbott-fanned internal divisions. That almost certainly accounts for the announcement’s timing, even though Turnbull insists the government has been working on the issue for at least six months. Comparisons to President Donald Trump’s “Putting America first” campaign mantra are inevitable, but Turnbull bristles at the idea. He says he’s just doing what any national leader is required to do.

The Labor opposition was just as surprised. Before last year’s election, Shorten didn’t need Trump with his appeal to job-threatened blue-collar workers in America’s Rust Belt states to tell him the same dynamic was at work here. But the labour movement was convinced the Liberals were wedded to the 457s. John Howard introduced temporary work visas in 1996 to meet skills shortages. The unions were always sceptical. They saw it as a device to keep wages down and to underinvest in skills training. 

When Shorten caught his breath, he went on the counterattack. Armed with research into the few details the government provided, he said less than 1 per cent of Australia’s 12-million-strong workforce – or 95,758 people – are covered by 457 primary visas, and of these only 8.6 per cent would be excluded under the new rules. There is no abolition here, is his point. “This isn’t a crackdown, it’s a con job,” he says. Turnbull “is tinkering at the edges for a headline so he can keep his job for another month. He’s scrapped one visa and created two new ones – not even one in 10 visa holders would be affected.”

Turnbull accuses Labor of political nitpicking. He says it’s policy and not politics driving him. Believe that if you will, but there is a big policy hole in the middle of the new visa plan. It was quickly identified by Joanna Howe, an expert on temporary labour migration at Adelaide University. Writing in the Fairfax papers, she says “the core problem which has dogged the 457 visa is being carried over to the government’s new system – employer-conducted labour market testing”.

This system has been discredited because it does not stop unscrupulous employers from accessing temporary migrant workers to replace local workers. She says the government’s own Azarias report identified this issue and recommended a new independent labour market testing model as world’s best practice. In Britain this work is done by the Migration Advisory Committee.

The head of Shorten’s old Australian Workers’ Union, Daniel Walton, is doubtful the government’s promised tougher policing of employers will amount to anything. He’s calling for more details and commitment of resources. Walton told RN Breakfast he is highly suspicious because the system has always been manipulated in the employers’ interests. He called on Labor to promise a constant review of categories covered by the new temporary visas and for independent testing. This is something Shorten is, unsurprisingly, happy to do.

Turnbull’s desperation saw him cross a line this week previously unimaginable. Exploiting racial fears worked a treat for John Howard in 2001. A repeat is still to play out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2017 as "Meat the press".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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