What short memories we have. Just seven years ago, thousands of overseas students rallied in Sydney and Melbourne to protest against years of shabby treatment by education providers and a spate of racially-motivated attacks.
The stories were picked up with great enthusiasm by newspapers across Asia, particularly in India, where headlines of ‘racist Australia’ sparked street protests of their own.
As I wrote at the time, the Labor government leapt into action, terrified of the effect that reputational damage would have on this huge industry.
That all seems to have been forgotten by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who on Thursday chose to politicise a fairly minor change to visa regulations – a clampdown on 457 visa workers in the fast food industry.
If the misuse of 457 visas in that industry was a major problem, his media appearances on the issue might have seemed reasonable.
But the numbers aren’t significant – there are just 500 visas nationally being used by workers in outlets such as KFC, Hungry Jack’s and McDonald’s.
Yes, those jobs should be held by Australians, but the number is a drop in the ocean. There are 270,000 Australians aged 15 to 24 considered by the Bureau of Statistics to be unemployed, and 365,000 classed as underemployed.
All the more reason to cancel the 457 visas, you might think?
Well, cancel them by all means, but announcing this minor change with full media fanfare can only stigmatise what shadow minister for employment Brendan O’Connor called “thousands and thousands of workers, overseas workers … working on student visas and working-holiday visas”.
That’s right. The overwhelming majority of ‘foreign’ workers behind the counter at Maccas hold perfectly legitimate student visas – McDonald’s employs 90,000 workers, of whom just 300 are on 457 visas.
Killing the golden goose
Moreover, the thousands of foreign students flipping burgers are paying billions of dollars in tuition fees, accommodation, transport, entertainment, travel and so on.
The jobs of ‘thousands and thousands’ of Australians depend on the $20.3 billion they spend each year.
That’s a bigger export industry than natural gas, twice the size of beef exports, and four times either wheat or professional services exports.
So why make such a media splash about “putting young Aussies first in the fast food industry” when the numbers involved are so small?
The answer is politics, not economics.
In political terms it’s a dog-whistle to voters who are abandoning the Coalition parties in favour of the race-based policies of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Why vote for a dog-whistle, when you can have the real thing?
Those voters may not like being served fries and burgers by foreigners, but then they will not notice any change at all down at their local Maccas or KFC. The numbers involved are just too small.
What will be noticed, by hundreds of thousands of fee-paying foreign students and their families, is that an immigration minister who could have made this reform with the silent stroke of a pen picked up the megaphone instead.