It’s barely two weeks since the Great Protectionist Donald Trump was elected as US President, and already the major parties in Australia have fallen into step by throwing up the barricades to establish Fortress Australia.
In addition to hospital-passing our refugees to other countries and demonising the skilled immigrants who contribute to our economy, the week culminated with the shrillest of dog whistles – a purported connection between immigration and threats to national security.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was the man to make the link, claiming the immigration policies of the Fraser Liberal government in the 1970s were responsible for the second- and third-generation Australians who are now committing crimes or becoming terrorists.
“If there is a particular problem that people can point to within a certain community, and we’re talking about a significant number of people in that community who are doing the wrong thing, then clearly mistakes have been made in the past,” Minister Dutton said.
“The reality is that Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today. We need to be honest in having that discussion.”
Parties playing politics
Mr Dutton’s denouncement of the Fraser years can be seen as the latest bid in a game of one-upmanship between the Coalition and Labor over “foreigners” that has been playing out over recent weeks.
First there was the Turnbull government’s proposal to prevent legitimate refugees who tried to get to Australia by boat from ever entering the country. Opposition leader Bill Shorten opposed the idea to keep the peace with the Labor left who’ve had a gutful of asylum seekers being used as political pawns.
But just like Mr Dutton, the sensitivities of his progressive colleagues didn’t stop Mr Shorten from making foreigners of another kind the new political punching bag this week.
While announcing that a Shorten Labor government would “buy Australia, build Australian, employ Australian”, the former union official claimed skilled migrants working on 457 visas were taking Australians’ jobs.
Labor seems to regress to this type of dog-whistling in much the same way the Coalition does when linking boat people with terrorists. It’s a cheap shot with easy returns.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard did something similar during her tenure, bowing to union demands to tighten 457 visas, which are a “form of slavery” according to one union official. The union movement also evoked images of foreign workers swamping our labour market during its campaign against Australia’s free trade agreement with China.
No wonder former prime minister Paul Keating is reportedly despairing of his party’s retreat from the political centre, claiming it lacks leadership as well as the “ability to speak aspirationally to people and to fashion policies to meet those aspirations”.
Mr Keating is quoted as laying part of the blame on the unions, which he believes have too much influence on Labor, as well as factional bosses and party apparatchiks who’ve lost touch with mainstream concerns.
Regrettably there is no similar voice of reason on the Coalition side. Instead we have Queensland LNP Senator (and One Nation fan) George Christensen, who demanded this week that no more skilled migrants be allowed into his electorate or elsewhere in central and north Queensland.
Perhaps we can expect a follow-up announcement on his intended wall-building efforts in the days to come.
That’s not to say the 457 visa system is perfect; it’s clearly not, and there are obvious improvements that could be made such as strengthening the market test for skill shortages so that it can’t be rorted by employers.
But the “improvements” being made to the system by the Coalition government, referred to this week by Defence moneybags minister Christopher Pyne, bear the unmistakable whiff of the pissing contest that’s taking place between the government and the opposition in the name of national (and job) security.
And it seems no asylum seeker, refugee or immigrant can avoid getting splashed by the spray.
According to Minister Pyne, the best way to fix the 457 visa system is to shorten the period visa holders have to find another job in Australia once employment with their original sponsor has ended.
Mr Pyne is keen for voters to believe Labor is responsible for skilled migration being rorted, given it was a Labor government that increased the job-seeking period from 28 to 90 days. And it was Bill Shorten himself who let 457 visas spike at 60,000 during his time as employment minister.
We can expect these claims and counter-claims to continue. And they will also escalate — as the major parties become increasingly isolationist in an attempt to win back the voters who deserted them for Pauline Hanson and her ilk.