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Monday, 24 June 2013
Page: 6704


Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (17:20): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. This is another piece of legislation which must be condemned by this parliament. This bill has all the hallmarks of policy failings that this government is renowned for. It is a bill which is essentially seeking a headline rather than delivering good public policy for our nation. It is a bill which has been drafted without any facts to support its intent. It is a bill that seeks to distract Australians from the government's failed border protection policies.

Before I address some of the specifics of the bill, I think we need to reflect for a moment on the context in which this immigration bill is being presented to the parliament. When federal Labor was elected to government in 2007, there were just four people in detention. Under John Howard's leadership, the federal coalition government had successfully implemented a border protection policy which had essentially stopped the boats—a policy based on temporary protection visas, the Pacific solution and turning boats around, where safe to do so.

It was so successful that federal Labor endorsed the coalition's border protection policy in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. But, as we now know, this election commitment would become just another broken promise.

It started in 2008 when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, changed the rules and relaxed the processing procedures for those who arrived illegally by boat. The abolition of the Howard government's border protection policy sent a very clear message to people smugglers, and the message was that Australia was once again open for business to people smuggling or, at the very least, to those who could afford to pay the people smugglers for their passage to Australia.

Just over five years later, all Australians are paying a very big price for a policy which Mr Rudd created and Prime Minister Gillard has exacerbated. Since 2008 we have seen more than 700 boats arrive illegally on our shores. They have transported more than 44,200 illegal arrivals and the cost to the taxpayer has now topped $10 billion. These facts are very relevant to the bill we are debating today because all members would be very well aware how angry hardworking ordinary Australians are about this policy failing. It is this anger which the government is attempting to appease. It is the attention to this issue which the government hopes to distract with this legislation.

But the reality is the government cannot hide behind the facts. They failed with the East Timor solution, when Prime Minister Gillard did not even consult the East Timorese government. No-one was therefore surprised when it fell over. The Prime Minister then proposed the Malaysia solution, but Malaysia was not a signatory to the UNHCR refugee convention. Hence, another ill-conceived thought bubble never saw the light of day and was never brought before this parliament for a vote. And as the government struggled through a botched policy process the boats kept coming, the number of illegal arrivals exploded—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member might like to refer his remarks to the bill before the House.

Mr HARTSUYKER: I am. This is very relevant to the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member is not referring to the bill.

Mr HARTSUYKER: It is very relevant to the bill before the House, Deputy Speaker. I am putting the bill in context; it is very relevant. We had the number of arrivals exploding, which brings us to where we are today: a desperate attempt to create a distraction. The government has confected an issue alleging systematic abuse of 457 visas. That is despite the government's own advisers saying there is no evidence of the widespread rorting of the 457 migration program.

While it is true that under this Labor government the number of 457 skilled migration visas issued has grown to their highest level, the government has failed to demonstrate that this has occurred because Australian employers are employing skilled workers from overseas in preference to Australian workers. Indeed, it is clear that the majority of Australian businesses prefer employing Australians who have the skills rather than employing skilled people from overseas, but the reality is that many businesses cannot find someone with the skills and experience they are seeking. Given such a circumstance, one would have thought the government would have welcomed a situation where businesses which cannot find Australians with the skills to fill a vacant position would employ an overseas worker through the 457 visa program. The 457 visa recipient would earn wages, pay their bills, pay taxes, cover the cost of things such as health care—they would be contributing to our nation's productivity and delivering a skill which would otherwise not be available. In most other progressive democracies this would be viewed as a good thing, but not in Australia under this government. This government would prefer to support illegal boat arrivals.

It is ludicrous that this situation would exist in Australia, but we should not be surprised by this government's approach to those who wish to contribute to our nation's wealth and we should not be surprised by this government's attempt to demonise Australian businesses. What is happening here is that uncertainty for business is being created, business confidence is being undermined and we are putting a brake on growth. It is of great concern. The 457 migration program plays an important role in securing short- and long-term skilled migrants that Australia has always needed and will need into the future, and we need certainty.

In my electorate there is a dependence on 457 visas. Over the past decade we have seen an explosion in the blueberry industry on the Coffs Coast. We have seen double-digit growth in blueberry production and this has been delivered through two major business models. Costa Berries, or Blueberry Farms of Australia, as many know them, is a massive operation which employs more than 2,000 people over a 12-month period. They produce premium blueberry product which generates tens of millions of dollars in wages and the cost of production, but their work is very labour intensive. Peter McPherson of Blueberry Farms has advised me of the difficulties of recruiting highly skilled labour in the field of horticulture. The business is reliant on the use of 457 visas and it brings workers in from countries such as Mexico and Chile. Why does the government want to impose more red tape on this business? Why is the government so keen to drive up the cost for this important industry?

Also on the Coffs Coast is a group of around 70 farmers who independently grow blueberries. Many of these farmers are members of the Indian community, which is heavily involved in the local community, particularly in the area of Woolgoolga. These farmers have got together and built a processing facility and they call their venture Oz Berries. The ongoing expansion of Oz Berries is one of the true industry success stories on the Coffs Coast. The processing facility was established in 2006 with the support of a $233,000 grant from the Howard government. From day one it has been a challenge to cope with the growth within this industry. Stage 1 was complete, then they leased a neighbouring building, and only last year installed a new packing machine to improve the service provided to local farmers. The exponential growth of the blueberry industry has been great for farmers and a real boost to the local economy. Today Oz Berries employs more than 60 people and turns over more than $27 million each year. The 70 farmers employ hundreds of additional people on their properties. Both Oz Berries and Costa Berries are vital to our local economy and they both need to use 457 visas in order to get the skills and the labour that they need.

I would like to address some of the specifics of the legislation in the time I have left. The bill will do a number of things. It will be amending the Migration Act to reinforce the obligations of sponsors of 457 visas. It will require prescribed classes of sponsors to undertake labour market testing for Australian workers prior to recruiting from overseas using the 457 visa program. It will require evidence of that labour market testing and provide for exemptions from labour market testing in some circumstances. It will enshrine the kinds of sponsorship obligations that the minister must ensure are prescribed in regulations. It will empower Fair Work inspectors under the Migration Act, including their access to employer premises for the purpose of the act. It will provide for inspectors to determine whether an employer has contravened a civil penalty provision or other employment sanctioned provision. And it will extend the period that an employee can seek new sponsored employment from 28 days to 90 days. So here we go again: the heavy hand of a federal government is effectively going to make the 457 application process not worth the effort of applying. The whole intention of the 457 visa system is to provide a quick solution—and I stress 'quick solution'—to the fluctuations in demand for skilled and semiskilled workers where such demand cannot be met by the Australian workforce. But this government wants to make it so difficult that business will throw its arms up in the air and say it is all just too hard.

Not only is this legislation wrong; it also represents another broken promise from this government. I remind members opposite of some of the comments made by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the Labor government. I will start with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister said in a doorstop interview in Beijing on 27 April 2011:

So I’ve got a very clear focus on lifting labour force participation by Australians and lifting skills—so a young kid sitting at home in Kwinana without a job and without any hope can get the skills he or she needs to get that opportunity in the northwest of our country. Now even with increased labour force participation and increased skills we will need skilled migration. I believe we’ve got the visa settings right particularly with short term 457 visas.

'I believe we've got the visa settings right' were the Prime Minister's words. It cannot get any clearer than that. The Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, had an interview with Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 on 20 April 2007. Uhlmann asked:

You've been talking a lot about workforce participation recently, but do you still need to lift the skilled migration intake?

The Treasurer said:

Well certainly what we do need to do is to respond to the needs of our economy, and we have done a lot domestically in terms of training skilled labour. We will have to do more and we'll also have to do as much as we possibly can to lift domestic labour force participation. And the Prime Minister has made that very clear.

I think you would be aware that in terms of temporary skilled labour, the 457 program is not capped, so business does have the opportunity to bring in more skilled migrants, should they require them, for particular projects.

So both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have been spruiking their support for the 457 visa program, but now, because of the asylum seeker debacle, they have decided to target skilled migration.

The coalition believe there should be a crackdown on any rorting of the 457 visa system but it is incumbent on the government in the first instance to produce the evidence that demonstrates that there is a problem. As we debate this legislation today this government has been unable—and I stress 'unable'—to table any evidence. As a result, the coalition will not support this bill and we will seek to refer it to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. We will oppose this legislation and call on members opposite not to let this government further undermine the productive capacity of our nation.

This is government by the unions for the unions. You would imagine that the government would have learnt by now that bad policy is bad politics. This is another example of bad government policy foisted upon this country because the government needs a political distraction. We will oppose this legislation. It is bad legislation: it is bad for business and it is bad for our nation.