In a stunning act of political courage, Prime Minister Turnbull chose Facebook to tell us that we are “the most successful multicultural nation in the world”. He then abolished the 457 Visa scheme, which allowed for skilled workers to come to Australia. Saying that “Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs” is a great grab for the TV news and radio commentators to latch onto. But does this change address the real issue - a long-term under-investment that technology skills?
A later press conference by Peter Dutton, the Minister for
Charisma and Personality Immigration and Border Protection explained that workers already here won’t be affected until their current visa expires. The goal, says the government, is reinforcing the temporary nature of the 457 visa and making the path to permanent residency more challenging.
Effective today, the number of occupations that qualify for a 457 visa is being reduced by about a third to 435.
There’s little doubt that some employers used the 457 visa as a way to undercut the labour market. For example, one Darwin firm paid a $430,000 penalty last year. And there are countless stories of local workers missing on jobs going to overseas candidates.
The real issue in Australia isn’t about visas or skilled immigration. Immigrants have long come to this country, worked hard and contributed to the fabric of our nation. And with unemployment sitting at just under 6% it’s hard to argue that the job market is being disrupted by 457 visa holders. A recent fact check by the ABC found the number of 457 visa holders to be fewer that half a million workers. And fewer than 200,000 were actually using the visa.
The real issue is a long term under-investment in the development of technical skills. It’s easy to get caught up in a game of buzzword bingo but the reality is our world requires a level of technical expertise that was previously unimagined. And when those skills aren’t present locally we need to fish outside our pond for a decent catch.
I’m not completely against the proposal to change the visa arrangements. I do think it plays up to the undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment present in much of the community. But unless this change is matched by a commitment by the federal government to boost the number of people seeking technical careers then it’s simply a popularist grab for headlines.
By the way, in 2013, Malcolm Turnbull tweeted this gem.
While the unemployment rate is a little higher today than it was when he made that tweet, it would be simplistic in the least to suggest abolishing the 457 visa program would drop the unemployment rate by enough to get us back to the 2013 unemployment rate.
The upside of this is businesses will need to reconsider their investment in educating staff. We also need to make some of the less sexy IT roles, particularly in support and testing, more attractive. But I’m not sure the government has any plans for this. Turnbull’s coalition government seems more intent on making short statements that will help their poll numbers than really fixing problems.