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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12509

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (5:51 PM) —in reply—I thank members for their contributions. They are obviously a very diverse group and come from different perspectives in this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. A number of them are former trade union officials who have put an emphasis on the interface of Australia’s industrial relations system, the way in which workers rights were undermined under the previous government and the question of section 457 visas. Some, such as the member for Forrest, come from areas of high demand for labour at the moment. It is particularly pronounced in some areas. Others, such as the member for Bennelong, represent electorates characterised by very high permanent and section 457 skilled migration. Other members, such as the member for Moreton, have been particularly active on the question of multiculturalism. He has high refugee migration to his electorate and has been active on the question of their acceptance in the community. I also want to mention the member for Bass. I was in the electorate of Bass recently, and it is interesting to note the work being done by the TAFE and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in regard to giving skills to humanitarian refugee entrants to this country. The member for Eden-Monaro spoke particularly of localised skill shortages in a specified industry.

I want to especially comment on the contribution of the member for Makin. He heavily emphasised the connection between industrial relations rights, the exploitation of people and their inability to struggle for themselves inside a hostile industrial relations environment and the way in which they can be exploited by sponsors. I want to put on the record my appreciation that he comes to this debate with particular strengths, having been heavily involved in a migrant resource centre in Adelaide. That gives me an opportunity to put on the record another aspect of Frank Crean, who was commemorated in the parliament today. Frank, having retired from this parliament, did not seek a career as a consultant or adviser selling himself around the parliament but rather chose to devote himself to public life. One of the ways in which he did that, as with the member for Makin, was to devote energy, time and a lot of effort to a Melbourne migrant resource centre. The legacy that he has in that migrant resource centre is still fairly evident.

So I thank all members for the contributions they made. Obviously, as I said, they are coming at this from different localised perspectives, different historical backgrounds, and different work and life experiences. The provisions of the bill continue this government’s work towards facilitating the entry of overseas workers to meet genuine skill shortages while preserving the integrity of the Australian labour market and protecting overseas workers from exploitation. Sponsors who may have done the wrong thing will be more easily identified. Those who are proven to have done the wrong thing in regard to the treatment of visa holders—this undermines Australian work conditions in general; not only the rights of those individuals but the rights of the wider society—will have more appropriate sanctions applied.

Meanwhile sponsors who do the right thing will be rewarded for their compliance with a program that better facilitates the entry of skilled workers and retains much needed access to the international labour market. These changes reflect the government’s commitment to improving the integrity of Australia’s skilled migration arrangements without sacrificing the contribution they make to Australia’s economic prosperity. Additionally, the flexibility established by the bill allows the program to adapt to changing economic needs and respond over time to any concerns raised by industry, government or union representatives.

The Rudd government is acutely aware of the need to strike an appropriate balance between the cost of compliance for sponsors and the integrity of the temporary skilled migration program. As other speakers have detailed, we are spending $19 billion plus because of the critical skills shortage in this country created by inaction and lack of interest over a long period of time—and if anyone wants to argue that that is not the reality they really are kidding themselves. To this end, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has engaged the Skilled Migration Consultative Panel, on an ongoing basis, to provide advice on the content of the regulations, particularly the obligations. The government is confident that the broad based representation on the panel means it can strike the required balance. Furthermore, the minister has undertaken to provide a draft of the regulations to the panel and the major parties for consideration early next year.

Finally, I want to make it clear that the government does not anticipate that the sponsor obligations will involve any significant additional costs for business. It would not be in anyone’s interests for that to be the case. In fact, the recent visa integrity review conducted by industrial relations expert Ms Barbara Deegan is clear on the need to minimise upfront and prospective costs associated with subclass 457 visa holders to aid mobility and decrease the potential for exploitation.

I note that earlier in the debate there was a brief reference to inaction by the minister. Let us look at the reality. We have seen major changes to detention policy in this country. We have witnessed a citizenship review which sought to go back to this country’s previous policy of bringing people in, being inclusive and not segregating people, not alienating people, not keeping people out of the system. We have seen a minimum salary level come into this particular sector of policy. We have witnessed a visit to Indonesia by the minister to speak to authorities over there about the issue of illegal migrants, and I had the opportunity recently with the minister to meet the relevant Indonesian minister while he was here for the intergovernmental discussions. We have had Barbara Deegan carry out these reviews. And, of course, as early as 17 February last, we made moves to try to tackle this question of skilled migration and exploitation. So for references to be made to inaction really is, I think, the pot calling the kettle black, given that we have had to overcome so many problems in this area, as illustrated by this legislation.

I also note that my experience is similar to that of the member for Makin with regard to people constantly coming to her about industrial relations exploitation. I had Liberal aldermen in my area this morning coming to me for help basically to overcome the exploitation of workers—and I went of course to the LHMU to get some advice on those matters.

So I do very much commend this bill to the House. It is dealing with realities that have to be overcome. It is unfortunate that things have reached this stage: it is unfortunate that we witness, daily, exploitation by people and that we have had a system where visa cancellation was the only option in some cases, which did not really solve the problem. So I do very strongly commend this legislation.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.