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Transcript of interview with David Lipson: ABC Lateline: 19 April 2017: Malcolm Turnbull's 457 visa con-job; gas crisis; decentralisation

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SUBJECTS: Malcolm Turnbull’s 457 visa con-job; gas crisis; decentralisation

DAVID LIPSON, PRESENTER: To discuss Labor's take on the changes I was joined earlier by the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten.

Bill Shorten, welcome to Lateline.


LIPSON: You've been pushing for some time for labour market testing to be at the heart of any push or changes to 457 visas. We hear this afternoon, though, that they may be exempt for countries that we have a free trade agreement with.

What does that mean in terms of the number of people who may be exempt?

SHORTEN: Well, let's call Malcolm Turnbull's so-called changes to 457 visas for what they are. They are a con job, not a crackdown.

Only Labor has got real plans to reduce the number of people coming here on temporary work visas and instead prioritising Australians through training.

For instance, we found in the last 24 hours since Malcolm Turnbull with big, bold fanfare announced these minuscule changes - one, 92 per cent of the people on 457 visas now in Australia were doing work in occupations which they'll still be able to do in the future. So this much-vaunted reduction of the number of classifications and jobs which will get people on visa work to do, well, 92 per cent of them are still covered by current occupations.

And then there's the issue you raised - Australia is currently signatory to free trade agreements, or negotiating free trade agreements right now. What that means is that there will be no labour market testing for any foreign citizen of a country with which we have a free trade agreement, or which we form a free trade agreement in the future with.

So that means that 77 per cent of the people currently here would be working on visas where the employer doesn't have to test the market to any degree of rigour. So there's no labour market testing which is independent for a lot of the people, and for most of the people, they're in occupations which aren't affected by the change to visas.

LIPSON: But you've supported those free trade agreements. You voted for them in Parliament. So what would you do differently? Presumably you wouldn't attempt to unravel them?

SHORTEN: We would have independent labour market testing. Labor, as you remember before -

LIPSON: But that labour market testing would be exempt for, as you say, 77 per cent of the 457s that are in place. So it wouldn't do much in the bigger scheme of things, would it?

SHORTEN: Independent testing would. And furthermore -

LIPSON: Would it affect those 77 per cent? Sorry to keep interrupting, but would it affect those 77 per cent?

SHORTEN: Well, for free trade agreements we current have, this government signed up to deals which we opposed initially and then we supported, we've put in extra testing.

But the real issue here is that, for future free trade agreements, we won't be signing off on deals if we were the government which would allow employers just to bring people in with self-regulation when it comes to whether or not there's real vacancies.

The issue here is that what they're doing is a con. It's not a crackdown. Malcolm Turnbull is not worried about the jobs of Australians. He's worried about his own job and he wants to look tough. But the problem is that we all know what he is. He's pretending to be something he's not, which is standing up for Australian jobs.

LIPSON: Not to labour the point but, you know, you're saying his plan is a con job. Labour market testing is at the heart of your plan, as it is his plan. But you're also saying that it won't affect 77 per cent of 457 visas, people on 457 visas. So is your plan a con job as well?

SHORTEN: Oh, no, not at all, because the point is we won't be signing future trade agreements which exclude labour market testing. Turnbull will. So there will be a lot more people covered by labour market testing.

And let's go to the basic problem here. If you are a baker, if you are a hairdresser, if you are a nurse, a mechanic or a boiler-maker, you're listed in occupations where we can import someone rather than train our own.

So this Government wants to look tough. They've done their research that people are dissatisfied with the fact that you have got people coming in on temporary work visas when there's unemployed Australians or Australians who are underemployed and would like to be trained up.

There are Australians who are unhappy by the fact that under four years of Liberal Government we now only have 280,000 people doing apprenticeships, when there used to be 420,000 apprentices.

What we are doing is, we are overly relying upon temporary workers from overseas to do jobs which we're not training Australians to do.

So where this Government falls down on the job is, one, they're not going to have sufficient or expansive independent labour market testing. They're going to rely on employers to do it. Two, they've left a lot of the occupations which Australians can do in the list which you are allowed to import people on to do temporarily, and three, they're doing nothing for TAFE and apprenticeships in this country.

LIPSON: Just briefly, you mentioned nurses, mechanics, boiler-makers. But would you ban them from coming to Australia? Would they still be able to come under a Shorten government?

SHORTEN: I think in the long term we have to ask ourselves the question: do we want to be a nation that imports our skills temporarily, or do we want to train our own people? Now, you can't change all of that overnight. But the point -

LIPSON: In the meantime you would allow them to come in?

SHORTEN: Well, I've got to say, what we would start looking at is proper labour market testing. That's the sweet spot in the short term.

Why should employers be allowed to hire people from overseas, instead of helping pay for apprenticeships and train people here?

LIPSON: This is all part of a broader plan, it seems, from the Turnbull Government to crack down somewhat on migration, to tighten up some of the laws. Do we need more checks and balances, do you think, for migrants who want to become Australian citizens?

SHORTEN: Well, I think the real issue here is we're an immigration nation and permanent migration has been a net plus for this country. But of course, people who come here should adhere to Australian laws and Australian values.

I think, though, that what's happened here is Mr Turnbull is just trying to save his own job.

See, for Labor this is not a new issue. We said before the last election there were rorts in the visa system. We said before the last election more needed to be done on apprenticeships. Now, we've seen nothing done on those last elections since the last election.

The only thing which Malcolm Turnbull is worried about keeping his unhappy backbench from rolling him. It's a very divided Government.

LIPSON: And what about this report from this afternoon that suggested the Government will tomorrow announce it will restrict migrants to three goes at a citizenship test? If they fail three times, they don't get to become an Australian citizen. Is that fair?

SHORTEN: We'll have a look at the detail of it. I'm not going to start reacting to every Government policy which is not spelled out.

LIPSON: On face value, you're not dead against it?

SHORTEN: Well, I'm not going to start commenting about issues which we don't have the information.

But let me make it clear. Anyone who comes here should adhere to Australian laws. Anyone who comes here should fit in with Australian values.

But what the real issue here is, what about Australian jobs? Now, I want to see Australians get first crack at the jobs.

Mr Turnbull's come up with a series of propositions which don't bear analysis. From having one visa which people are entitled to, he's created two visas - just a two-year and a four-year visa. And the issue is, why should hairdressers or builders or aged care nurses be imported temporarily from overseas, when we can train Australians to do these jobs?

LIPSON: OK. A few other issues to get through.

Gas. Now, you have said that Malcolm Turnbull needs to stand up to the big gas companies and ensure that there's enough domestic supply. If the companies don't do that, at what point should the Government rewrite contracts and force them to do it?

SHORTEN: Well, I think we're getting to a tipping point. I was at a CSR brick-making operation in Somersby on the Central Coast today. I was at Qenos, which is a petrochemical manufacturing facility in Melbourne's Altona suburb yesterday. Tomorrow I'll be in BlueScope in the Illawarra.

All of these companies - blue-collar, manufacturing, engineering companies - need reliable gas at a sustainable price. It is a joke that you can buy Australian gas in Japan for Japanese businesses cheaper than Australian businesses can buy Australian gas in Australia.

LIPSON: So should those contracts be rewritten now?

SHORTEN: Well, I would hope that the gas companies are getting the message that they need to look at perhaps swapping out some of their contracts overseas. In other words, diverting Australian gas to Australian business and replacing the gas that they were meant to supply in export contracts from gas they purchased on the international market. That would be the best outcome.

But clearly Turnbull's meeting today with the gas companies has been a complete failure. What they've said today is that they'll have more inquiries, more investigations.

Regulatory options have to be on the table. Labor's proposed having a national interest test. And of course, more extreme developments have got to be at least put on the table for the gas companies to realise this is Australian gas and first claim on it should go to Australian business and Australian workers.

LIPSON: The Government's push to decentralise departments has been ramped up today. They're going to have to justify why they should be in Canberra. What would you do in government to agencies or departments that have been shifted outside of Canberra? Would you bring them back?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, the issue that we're trying to solve in the region is jobs. Now, it's always good to have government operations outside of Canberra.

But we've seen the Pesticides and Veterinary Management Authority: $25 million later wasted. You see the authority working in a McDonald's in Armidale in New England. You see 60 per cent of the staff have resigned. I mean, that's going to put Australian industry back by four or five years at least.

So there's a right way and a wrong way to create jobs in the region.

Do you know what I'd do if I was the government? I'd have a good look at the Townsville pipeline. I'd have a look at building the levee in Rockhampton to stop the flooding. I would do something about the gas crisis which is affecting the stability and future of steel workers in BlueScope.

LIPSON: But just specifically on the question -

SHORTEN: Well, my point is: if you want to create long-term -

LIPSON: Would you try to bring them back, those ones that have been decentralised?

SHORTEN: Well, I don't think this Government is going to do very much by the next election. Let's be brutally honest. This is not a government renowned for its hard work and for getting a lot done. So I think that's in the nature of a hypothetical.

If you want to create jobs in the regions, incentivise the private sector.

There's a role for government to help incentivise infrastructure. High-speed rail, building flood mitigation across northern New South Wales and Queensland, building a pipeline to help deal with the water crisis in Townsville, making sure there's reliable gas so regional manufacturers can keep employing people in the regions, such as the Central Coast where I was today or the steel mills down in the Illawarra tomorrow.

That is how you generate long-term jobs. Provide policy certainty, provide that infrastructure expenditure in the regions.

Instead, this Government just wants to play games about do we move a particular government department here or there? I mean really, if that's the only thing they've got left in their policy armoury, they're pretty shallow, aren't they?

LIPSON: Bill Shorten, we're out of time. Thanks for joining us on Lateline.

SHORTEN: Thank you very much.