News National Unions enter immigration debate as government finds a way to cut migrant numbers
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Unions enter immigration debate as government finds a way to cut migrant numbers

ACTU secretary Sally McManus has called for the minimum wage to be replaced with a 'living wage'.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus has called for a cut in temporary work visa numbers. Photo: AAP
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The union movement has entered the national immigration debate, arguing for a cut in temporary work visas as trends suggest the Turnbull government has managed to reduce migrant numbers by stealth.

Days after it was revealed Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had canvassed a reduction in Australia’s cap on permanent migrants, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus argued the number of temporary visas was the bigger concern.

In an interview with the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy on Insiders, Ms McManus accused the government of exploiting community concerns about immigration and blaming migrants for “things that are wrong with the economy”. 

Ms McManus said “we think at the moment we have far too many people on temporary work visas” but declined to say what the number should be.

“We are shipping in exploitation and it is taking away jobs for local people,” she said.

“So if we wanted to do something about this issue, Peter Dutton could do something about that now and we should move away from this temporary idea of having guest workers and instead move to ensure we maintain a proper permanent migration system.”

She said the number of temporary workers had shot up to about one million in the 20 years since that visa was introduced. A similar claim was previously found by ABC Fact Check to be ‘unsubstantiated’.

While figures provided to a Senate committee suggest about 1.4 million people in Australia are on temporary visas with working rights, it is not clear that all those visa-holders would be in work.

Government at odds on immigration

Ms McManus’ comments come as members of the Turnbull government publicly debate Australia’s migration intake, spurred on by continued calls from former prime minister Tony Abbott to reduce the cap.

Mr Abbott has been arguing for a reduction in the migration intake for some time, saying it should be slashed from 190,000 to as low as 110,000.

The former PM, along with other Coalition MPs, believes the move would reduce overcrowding in capital cities and lower house prices.

Business groups are usually opposed to a cut in migration numbers because they believe it would hamper growth.

Dutton finds way to reduce migration intake

While the permanent migration cap is currently set at 190,000, reports suggest the 2017-18 intake is on track to fall to between 160,000 and 170,000.

The reduction is a result of the government having “tightened the screws” on the visa approvals process, Mr Dutton told The Australian.

In addition, the government has also managed to reduce migration numbers by merging a new visa for New Zealanders with the skilled independent visa.

By merging the programs but not increasing the intake, about 10,000 Kiwis that already live and work in Australia will be among the 44,000 previously separate places that went to skilled independent visa program applicants – who are mostly from Asia, the ABC reported.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported last week the government had quietly introduced new rules that made it harder for poor migrant families to support their relatives in visa applications.

Why Dutton can’t lower the cap

Budget rules hamper the government’s ability to lower the overall cap by requiring the Treasurer to find new growth measures to offset lost growth that would be assumed as a result of a reduced migration intake.

But those measures suggest the government has successfully reduced the number of permanent migrants coming into Australia without lowering the cap, which was introduced as a target under Labor.

The news follows Mr Turnbull’s decision last week to angrily deny reports Mr Dutton had considered options to reduce Australia’s annual cap by 20,000.

The issue became an embarrassment for the Prime Minister when Mr Dutton confirmed the story in spite of Mr Turnbull’s emphatic denials.

On Sunday, Mr Abbott told 2GB radio it was unsurprising he and Mr Dutton had similar views on immigration, but denied they were collaborating on the issue.

“I admire him as a bloke and I respect him as a politician so I guess we would naturally be inclined to think along similar lines.”

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