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A race to the bottom on race

Turnbull’s 457 visa announcement was not about jobs

Malcolm Turnbull made an announcement today about race. Nominally it was about jobs. But it was really about race.

Moments after the prime minister announced that 457 visas for skilled foreign workers would be abolished and replaced with a different set of visas, Pauline Hanson tweeted that “The Government will deny their tough talk on immigration & plan to ban 457 visas is because of One Nation but we all know the truth!”

And we do.

Hanson wasn’t exactly right, because Turnbull didn’t exactly deny it. When asked that question – an obvious question even without Hanson’s tweet (which came around the time that Turnbull began speaking) – he bumbled through an answer about it being the result of government processes.

To be fair to Turnbull, he’s not the first politician to have made a race announcement under the pretext of a jobs announcement. Six months ago Bill Shorten – who had already pledged that “we're not going to lose our blue-collar voters like the Democrats did” – achieved a very similar thing by announcing his own (not quite so drastic) crackdown on 457s.

And sure enough, not long after Shorten’s announcement, Hanson tweeted, “It seems Labor’s now taking its cues from One Nation. Good to see.”

Hanson may not be a very reliable witness, but as I wrote at the time, Shorten’s rhetoric cynically played to the resentment felt by some Australians about migrants. Foreign workers, he said, are “taking the jobs of nurses, motor mechanics, carpenters, auto-electricians. These are the jobs which can be done by Australians and we make no apology for saying Labor’s approach to the Australian economy is buy Australian, build Australian, employ Australians.”

Turnbull’s rhetoric tells the same story. This announcement was about “Australian jobs” – fine, fair enough – but also about “Australian values”. Got that? Still not enough evidence for you? He managed to sneak in references to “border protection” and “people smuggling” as though they were relevant in any way. It was almost comical. This is about pesky foreigners and all the troubles they bring.

Shorten’s policy was termed “Australia first”. Turnbull today said his policy was about “putting Australians first”.

In other words, no one wants to be left out of the nationalism auction.

“We put Australia FIRST.”

“Well, we put Australia FIRSTER.”

The numbers, too, suggest this isn’t the most important policy announcement for jobs. Ninety-five thousand people currently use 457 visas. To put that in context, 60,000 jobs sprang into existence last month, and didn’t move the unemployment figure (because participation rose too). That’s not to say there’s no merit in it – but it’s hardly a jobs bonanza.

It’s also silly to talk about wanting to make sure skilled Australians are filling jobs while cutting funding to higher education, which is the way to make sure we have skilled Australians in the first place.

It’s worth noting too that Shorten’s less extreme actions and Turnbull’s plan overlap. Shorten announced that companies would have to ensure there were no locals to do jobs first. Turnbull announced something similar as part of his plan today. So it will be an interesting test to see if business groups attack Turnbull in the same way they attacked Shorten.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said last year [$] that by “targeting the 457 temporary skilled visa, Labor is dancing to the tune of the union movement rather than being guided by the evidence”. The Australian Industry Group said, “We can't go and demonise people here who are working under 457 visas without thinking about what has gone wrong with our training system.” (Presumably, as long as we think about the training system, we can demonise away.)

The final thing to note is the timing. We are three weeks out from the budget. Fairly or not, the budget is looming as Turnbull’s last chance to right his political ship. Every one in Canberra knows by now that budgets don’t give governments a bounce. If Turnbull is to avoid the backlash that will follow stagnant polls, he must begin rebuilding now.

That’s what today is about. It’s about political survival. And it’s about race. 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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