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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 6470


Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (11:28): Suffice it to say that it is quite an extraordinary parliament, isn't it, when we hear the debate that has gone on today in relation to migration, immigration, 457 visas, border control—all of those things generally. Quite frankly we have a Labor government that has excised Australia from Australia, even though back in 2006 some of the very same members were arguing against this position, which I find quite extraordinary. We now have an opposition claiming that the government is demonising foreign workers through the 457 visas. I am speechless, almost, even though it I am on my feet to speak about this issue. If there has ever been a party that has demonised foreign workers, asylum seekers more than the opposition, I would like to see it. This is the party that says, 'We choose who comes here!' They had big posters and signs up around the electorate, and here they are now as the friend of foreign workers!

It is quite extraordinary that this parliament is in such a state that we see both sides making political points rather than looking at what the legislation is, what the real issues here are and what the solutions to them are.

I came to this debate very neutral. I did not have a particular view. I saw the competing arguments, and I think the competing arguments can be summarised pretty much as, 'Are we putting more red tape and regulation and more onerous positions on business by requiring checking and market testing before they get 457 visas?' versus, 'Do we give the benefit of the doubt to an Aussie worker?' That seems to me to be where this debate is and where you draw the line on it. From my position, the benefit of the doubt would always go to the Aussie worker. If that means that a business has to go out there and market-test to see whether there is someone out there who can fill the job, terrific. I think that is a good thing, and I find it extraordinary that we have the opposition out there arguing that this is some huge burden on business. For goodness sake! Can they come up with some better areas of red tape where there are burdens on employers rather than this? It is quite extraordinary that this is a big issue for them in terms of where there is a huge, onerous burden on business. It is just a nonsense of an argument that they have.

What I did, though, was also go out to my electorate and say, 'What's your view on this? These are the competing views.' I represent an electorate that has higher unemployment than most. We are an area that was one of 10 across Australia that the Labor government has recognised as needing extra assistance in terms of employment services to get people back into jobs. So giving Australians—people who live here—the first chance at a job is something that is pretty high on the priority list in my electorate. But I thought I would test it, because it is fair enough to say, 'Is this going to stop people from being employed?' I have not found one person in my electorate who does not think this is a good idea. In fact, what I have found is that most people are stunned that this is not the situation already. So this confected argument that we are having here from the opposition is just a political argument to try to cause political damage to the government. It is not about the issues at all.

I also listened to the member for Lyons. I always listen to the member for Lyons when he gets up to speak, because he often has some very interesting and thoughtful things to say. His argument is that it is not necessary, because there are already regulations that can cover this. That might be the case, but aren't we prepared, on an issue like this, to say that the benefit of the doubt should go to the Australian worker? That is what this is about. Let's go out there and test. If the member for Lyons is right and this legislation goes through, so what?

Honourable members: Lyne.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Lyne. So what? I think the member for Lyons would agree with me too, but he is probably bound by a caucus decision, unlike the member for Lyne. But so what? We then have an extra requirement—not an extraordinarily onerous one—for an employer to market-test. Is this such a heinous imposition that we are going to be putting on employers? I do not think so.

One of the other issues that show why the opposition have taken this as just a political debate is their insistence on trying to categorise this legislation as a piece of union legislation. I know quite a few union officials and have spent some time there. The No. 1 issue for the union movement is not stopping 457 visas. If the government were about trying to put up legislation that was to give a leg-up or a hand-up to the union movement, I do not think the leaders of the ACTU would be rushing there and saying, 'Look, the one thing you can do for us is put up the 457 legislation, because that's a terrific thing that's going to ensure the survival of the union movement for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.' This is just about playing the politics in terms of this.

But what is wrong with a union or the union movement having a view on employment matters? There seems to be a view from the opposition that, because the union movement has a view on employment matters, this is some great conspiracy that is wrapped around the government and is forcing them to take a particular position on this legislation. I think you would expect the union movement to have a position on employment matters, as you would expect the Business Council to have a view in relation to business. What can we expect? That the government will come in here and say: 'Oh my goodness! There's a piece of legislation that the opposition are supporting because the Business Council have said it's a good idea. This is some sort of rort for the Business Council'? This is a ridiculous argument and is an indictment of the way this parliament is now operating: it is just about the politics. We really do need to get back to what is going to work—what is a feasible proposition.

As I said at the start of my contribution, if the choice is between slightly more onerous requirements for employers in terms of market-testing whether there are Australian workers available and giving the benefit of the doubt to Aussie workers having an opportunity for employment that they may lose then surely everyone in this chamber, in the dark hours of the night, with their hand on their heart, would say, 'We should be giving the benefit of the doubt to the Australian worker.' The fact that we are having this argument shows that this place has descended to such a state that we will manufacture arguments entirely for political gain and political purposes, and I think that is terribly sad.

The member for Higgins, in her contribution, also spoke about a labour market needing to be flexible. My view, in terms of government regulation, always is that government should only regulate a market where there is unfairness, potential unfairness or a failure in the market. If you took the position of the member for Higgins through to its conclusion in terms of offering the greatest flexibility, you would not have a Fair Work Commission, you would not have wages that are negotiated in any way collectively. It would be entirely up to the market as to how these things are set.

I am sure there are some on this side who hanker for that to be the actual position but that is not the tradition in Australia. It never has been. The tradition in Australia has been to make sure there is some balance and fairness and that there is a fair go for all. Flexibility always has to be balanced with fairness. The issue of fairness here is making sure that the benefit of the doubt in relation to a potential job is given first to the Australians who work here. I think that is where you balance the fairness in terms of what is there.

In my electorate only last week I was able to secure $2.7 million for a skills centre. There is never a magic bullet for employment issues and getting people back into jobs. I do not think I have heard anyone from the government side in this debate say, 'We tighten up 457 visas, this is nirvana for Australian workers.' But it is part of what needs to be done as in my electorate, where I was able to get $2.7 million for a skills centre which is going to be set up in the Wyong Shire. Young people are going to be given the opportunity that they would not have had without that investment of money to start in a job, trade, apprenticeship or certificate type training on the job at a skills centre.

The reason I go back to my electorate is that it is electorates like mine, which have high unemployment and even higher youth unemployment, which are going to be most unfairly treated if, on balance, the benefit of the doubt does not go to the Australian worker. This legislation is important to that, along with a whole raft of other measures that are needed.

If everyone in this chamber is genuine about this issue, they will say this is not going to fix unemployment, this is not going to do all those sorts of things. But in some cases it will. I had a constituent come and see me last week while I was sounding out my electorate as to what they thought about this legislation. This constituent came in to talk to me about employment in her industry and the use of 457 visas and the effect that it was having on opportunities for young Central Coast workers. Her view quite clearly was that things like giving the benefit of the doubt first to the Australian worker—making sure that employers first test to see if any are available—are some of the most important things that can be done.

I came to this debate without a view but have gone to the electorate, have spoken to people and taken the position that I would support this legislation and then, as more and people spoke to me quite strongly about their position in this, felt that I needed also to contribute to the debate. I have been horrified at the standard of argument that we have had from the opposition on this issue. I do not have an issue with them if the whole argument that is being put is this is going to cause all sorts of terrible issues for the employer. Make that case out, run that argument. I do not even have a problem with the argument of flexibility. Let us just argue where that line is drawn. But this absolute nonsense that we are getting that this is some sort of union plot to fix up declining union membership is just an absolute nonsense. This opposition can never stand in this place or any place else and say, 'We are worried about the demonisation of foreign workers,' given their consistent position—one that has been followed by this side of the House as well—on asylum seekers. This is not groundbreaking legislation, but it is important legislation, and it is legislation that should be supported.