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Tuesday, 28 November 2006
Page: 122

Senator BARTLETT (10:18 PM) —I would like to speak tonight about the need for all of us across the political spectrum to be very diligent and watchful about the rhetoric we use, and the need to avoid encouraging prejudice towards migrants or encouraging xenophobic attitudes towards migrants. It is a propensity that people from across the political spectrum can fall back on from time to time in playing on people’s fears and subconscious prejudices when it suits the political arguments that they want to make at the time. As I said, encouraging such attitudes towards migrants is something that can and does occur across the political spectrum. It is very easy to slip into and it is very important to try and avoid. It is important to speak out about it whenever it occurs.

I have previously spoken in this place about my concern about some aspects of the campaign against the 457 visa—the visa that is for long-term temporary skilled workers—and other visas that allow migrant workers to come into the country. It is certainly legitimate to raise concerns about the exploitation of migrant workers, whether on temporary visas or permanent visas. I have no doubt that exploitation is occurring and that more needs to be done to address it, but that important point should not be reinforced by promoting the myths that migrant workers are taking the jobs of Australians, through these schemes, or that the migrant labour scheme as a whole drives down conditions.

As I said, I have no doubt that there is exploitation. Indeed, the recent Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education report, Perspectives on the future of the harvest labour force, which dealt with the potential for Pacific labour in the horticultural industry, noted increasing evidence of unscrupulous exploitation of 457 visa holders by some labour contractors and their business clients. It pointed to some of the ad hoc arrangements in abattoirs, for example.

That example from the Senate report highlights an area on which we can focus to address exploitation and misuse of the scheme, particularly through some labour contract firms. It does not mean that these workers are driving down conditions; it means that some people are misusing the scheme and exploiting the workers.

The facts show that the 457 visa scheme, and other schemes that allow migrants to come in to fill employment gaps in our labour market, is a clear net economic and employment benefit for Australians. That makes sense when you think about it, because these people, on the whole—and I emphasise ‘on the whole’—are filling jobs that would otherwise not be performed. They are therefore working and acting in the employment market, generating wealth through performing those jobs, which creates wider wealth in the community and further employment.

It is to the overall net benefit of the community to have people filling gaps that would otherwise not be filled. That is no excuse not to do more about increasing skills in Australia. When there are multifaceted issues and different points to raise in debates we need to make sure that we do not slip into using that as an excuse to tap into old fears that migrants are taking our jobs. Frankly, any law-abiding employers—those that do not want to exploit the system—would not go through the red tape and uncertainty of getting temporary offshore workers here if they could get onshore workers.

That campaign and some of the xenophobia that has accompanied it has been run through parts of the union movement and some, although certainly not all, in the ALP. The government, of course, is also not devoid of occasionally plugging into prejudices in the Australian people when it comes to fear of people from overseas. Many of us, including me, have spoken a number of times about the demonisation of asylum seekers, with some—again, certainly not all—in the government being prepared to imply, and sometimes be quite explicit, that there is a risk here that some people are potential terrorists or that there is some sort of threat to our security from asylum seekers, despite the total lack of evidence of this.

We also have the issue, which applies to both major parties on the whole, of many—although, again, not all—being unwilling to accept at this stage Pacific island labourers coming in to fill gaps that are there in some of our seasonal work. It is, in my view, very hard to see how it is acceptable to promote working holiday visas for people from European countries to come here to do seasonal work but at the same time say we will not take people from Pacific island nations. I think it is no surprise that that is perceived as having some degree of prejudice attached to it when talking about Pacific island workers.

That is not to say there are not some legitimate policy issues to consider when we are talking about using offshore workers for seasonal work or unskilled labour market programs, but those policy issues should not be infused with any sort of prejudice or selective discrimination towards people from certain parts of the world, particularly, people from our own region. Again, I would point to the evidence that was given to the inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education into Pacific region seasonal contract labour. Evidence was provided about how a similar program that operates in Canada has not only assisted those who have come in for temporary seasonal work from particularly Mexico and the Caribbean but also provided significant economic benefits to the host country, Canada. There have been positive spin-offs for rural towns. Seasonal workers spend a proportion of their earnings on local goods and services. So we are not only risking inflaming prejudice by playing on some of these fears as arguments against these sorts of programs, saying these sorts of people might not go home or they are not the sort of people we want here—that people from Western Europe are much more likely to fit in and those sorts of arguments—but also neglecting economic opportunities that are there for us.

I note with some dissatisfaction the use of some antimigrant arguments that I saw in a submission put forward by the Greens in opposing the pulp mill in Tasmania. There are lots of legitimate arguments for and against the pulp mill, and I am not passing a view on that in this speech, but I am concerned that in amongst some of the legitimate arguments put forward against the pulp mill there was concern expressed about large numbers of international workers being required, as though this was somehow a bad thing, and that those people might bring in diseases like TB and HIV and that there may be an increase of those diseases. Along with that concern was expressed the concern that overseas workers will send money back home to their family in remit earnings. Again, I think that is actually a positive aspect of distributing wealth around different parts of the world and an aspect of migration that has mutual benefits. It is disappointing to see arguments like that used to back up and reinforce other arguments against a particular project.

A view that is prevalent in parts of the environment movement—not the majority—is that genuine concern about the overall population of the planet is used as a cover for arguing against migration into Australia to keep Australia’s population down. This is completely focusing on the wrong issue and is using closeted concerns about people from overseas under the guise of environmentalism. To be balanced, that is a view that some of the Democrats held in the past and it used to be reflected in our policy, but I am very pleased that it no longer is and has not been for a number of years. Migration has been a massive boon to Australia. There are always further refinements about how to run migration programs, but it should never be based on fear, discrimination or prejudice towards people from other countries. The net benefit to our country and the globe as a whole is enormous.