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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12316

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (10:56 AM) —I present the explanatory memorandum to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

From day one, the Rudd Government has been focused on ensuring we have the policy settings right to facilitate the entry of temporary workers in a way that is responsive to the needs of employers, while at the same time retaining the integrity of the subclass 457 visa program.

The manifest failure of the previous government to invest in the education and training of our own people has contributed to endemic skills shortages across the country. There is not a member of this House who has not had localised instances of and complaints about this reality.

In addressing these very serious skills shortages, the first priority of the Rudd Government is equipping our own workforce, our own people, to meet the skills requirements of industry.

In the 2008 budget the Treasurer announced that the Rudd government is making a $19.3 billion investment in education and training to ensure we continue to provide employment and training opportunities for Australians.

However, while investing in the education and training of Australians is crucial, it will not deliver the skills employers need now, when they are already necessary.

Over the last five years Australian employers have increasingly turned to the temporary skilled migration program to access the skilled workers they need.

The sudden growth of the scheme in recent years, coupled with its expansion into lower-skilled occupations, has placed new pressures on the integrity of the subclass 457 visa program.

Community confidence in the scheme suffered under the previous government following a series of well-publicised abuses of workers on subclass 457 visas. That is why the Rudd government is placing such a heavy priority on restoring integrity to this program.

On 17 February this year we announced a package of migration measures including:

  • the appointment of an external reference group to advise how temporary work visas could contribute to the supply of skilled labour.

This reference group made 16 recommendations, 15 of which either have been implemented or are being implemented. The other one is the subject of ongoing consideration.

In April this year the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship appointed industrial relations expert Ms Barbara Deegan to conduct a broad review into the integrity of the temporary skilled migration program. Ms Deegan reported making 68 recommendations which will inform an agenda of long-term reforms to the 457 visa program that will be brought forward in the 2009-10 budget.

The bill that I am introducing today complements action that the Rudd government has already taken to boost the integrity of the 457 visa program.

The bill will strengthen the integrity of temporary working visa arrangements by introducing a new framework for the sponsorship of noncitizens seeking entry to Australia.

This will be achieved through four main measures:

  • providing the structure for better defined sponsorship obligations for employers and other sponsors;
  • allowing for improved information sharing across all levels of government;
  • expanded monitoring and investigative powers to identify instances of possible noncompliance by sponsors; and
  • the introduction of meaningful penalties for sponsors found in breach of their obligations.

The government recognises that temporary skilled migration is a complex issue with many stakeholders.

That is why the government has established a Skilled Migration Consultative Panel comprising representatives from state and territory governments, the business community and other industrial and union stakeholders.

The panel will provide ongoing advice and informed feedback on reform proposals based on a sound appreciation of the issues and the impacts these issues have on business, the Australian workforce and the broader community. The minister has also said that any proposed regulations will be referred to the panel for consideration before being made.

In summary, the legislation will strike an appropriate balance between:

  • facilitating the entry of overseas workers to meet genuine skills shortages,
  • preserving the integrity of the Australian labour market, and
  • protecting overseas workers from exploitation.

The sponsorship obligations that will be defined in the regulations will deliver greater clarity to both sponsors and overseas workers.

Improved information sharing and expanded investigative powers will better equip government to identify noncompliance without unduly imposing on business.

Civil sanctions will give the department another tool for effectively managing noncompliance and preventing the exploitation of workers from overseas.

The bill deserves the support of all members of this parliament.

I commend the bill to the chamber.