KIERAN GILBERT: Once again immigration policy debate in this country has descended into which side of politics is demonising foreigners for their own political gain. Coming up this morning, my interview with Prime Minister Gillard. First, though, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s criticism over the Prime Minister’s comments on 457 visas [Temporary Work (Skilled) (subclass 457) visas] and her suggestion that Australian workers be put first and foreigners at the back of the queue when it comes to skilled jobs.
TONY ABBOTT: One of the things that I think was very jarring in the Prime Minister’s approach last night was this assault on foreigners … and trying to stir people up against them is the last thing that the Prime Minister should be doing, particularly in western Sydney and people who come to our country the right way, not the wrong way, and who can make an economic contribution from day one, as people on 457 visas can… surely they are the best possible migrants to our country.
KIERAN GILBERT: For her response to that criticism and the other issues of the day, I spoke to the Prime Minister a little earlier this morning.
KIERAN GILBERT: Prime Minister, on 457 visas, the Government’s been talking a big game on this but the fact is the number of workers arriving on that category of visa has actually increased over the last couple of years. Do you concede that?
JULIA GILLARD: We inherited a system here from the former Government that was riddled full of rorts… riddled full of rorts that had brought people into Australia not to take occupations because there were genuine skills shortages but brought into Australia because the employer thought it would be easier to have a foreign worker. We’ve worked to get those rorts out of the system and we’ll continue to work to make sure that this program does what it should do address real skill shortages and not what it shouldn’t do which is substitute temporary foreign workers for Aussies who are ready, willing and able to do the job.
KIERAN GILBERT: You and the Minister have said that these visas have been abused but we haven’t been given any examples. Can you give us an example of where a 457 visa has been abused?
JULIA GILLARD: Well, around the country I and Members of Parliament in the Labor team do hear concerns from people about them being ready to take a job and with the appropriate qualifications and not getting a go and so, when I am getting that kind of community feedback, it wouldn’t be responsible to not take it onboard. Now, we’ll always need a program to deal with temporary genuine skill shortages. I want to be strongly investing in Australian schools, our training system, our universities so we’re giving Australians the skills they need to get the jobs and I always want to make sure that Australians come first so, when we’re getting that kind of feedback, of course we take it onboard and we look again and if a further crackdown is necessary then we make it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Feedback and anecdotal evidence… can you understand why people see this as kneejerk reaction? We haven’t been given an example of where 457 visas have been abused.
JULIA GILLARD: We make policy based on evidence but community concern is there, people have raised examples and, of course, when we get that kind of feedback, we should respond. Look, there’s just a big difference here between the approach that I want to take to these kinds of issues and the approach on the other side of politics. Mr Abbott says he wants 457 visas, temporary foreign workers, to be a mainstay of Australia’s immigration system. My view is we have a migration system that is about permanent migrants coming to our country, getting a job, being real contributors to building the nation. When we have temporary skills shortages, yes, we do rely on instruments like 457s but they’ve got to be properly administered so Australians have the reassurance of knowing that, if they’re there, with the skills, ready to do the job, then they get the job.
KIERAN GILBERT: With me now, Craig Emerson and Senator Simon Birmingham. Gents, a shorter time we’ve got today, given the Prime Minister was on the program, but let’s get through a few of the issues. The 457 visas, Craig Emerson… the Government, the Prime Minister, accused of demonising foreign workers. Has this debate descended again to where it should not be?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, hold on. The background of this was not 457 visas. It was Scott Morrison’s disgraceful comments about reporting asylum seekers, some sort of arrangement or draconian measure where asylum seekers who are in the community would be reported to the police and to neighbours and then, of course, Tony Abbott then tried to turn that back on the Government. He defended it and then said ‘oh, but you’re getting tough on 457 visas’. Of course we are. 457 visas are about supplying skills shortages where they exist, not… they’re not deigned to displace Australian workers but it was Mr Abbott who supported Mr Morrison’s disgraceful comments and Mr Morrison has a track record in doing this.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Let’s go to Senator Simon Birmingham. Your thoughts on this, because this obviously has descended once again into both sides of politics demonising foreign workers… it’s not where this debate should be. Both sides are to blame, aren’t they?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, this 457 visa debate is nothing more than a giant smokescreen by Julia Gillard and the Government to try to distract attention away from the Government’s many other problems, not least of which being the complete loss of control of borders in terms of illegal arrivals attempting to come to Australia. The truth of the matter we have, Kieran, is that the Government has allowed in its five years in office, growth in 457 visas to the highest number ever. They’ve had five years to address this if there are rorts or problems, as the Prime Minister claims, and quite clearly they haven’t because quite clearly there probably aren’t rorts or problems. You asked the Prime Minister where the evidence was, in your interview with her, and what did the Prime Minister say? ‘Oh, well, Kieran, it’s about responding to community sentiment sometimes’ so she had no evidence to point to, this is just about creating a smokescreen and if you need the greatest evidence of it all, the Prime Minister’s love of 457 visas or hatred of 457 visas is, in fact, so evident that she apparently uses them in her own office.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright, your thoughts?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, you just heard Simon Birmingham again describing asylum seekers as illegals, illegal arrivals. This is the same process that’s so ingrained it’s part of their DNA. They are not illegals. That’s what Tony Abbott calls them. That’s what the Coalition calls them. They talk about peaceful invasion and then they accuse us of vilifying asylum seekers. Last night Julie Bishop said ‘oh, stop vilifying Scott Morrison’, for goodness sake… I mean, these people have set out to attack asylum seekers, to create fear, talk about peaceful invasions and, in terms of reforming the 457 visa arrangements which we inherited, we do support 457 visas.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It doesn’t sound like it, listening to the Prime Minister.
CRAIG EMERSON: We did one wave of reforms several years ago, so Simon’s wrong about that, and we have just implemented another to enforce the intent of 457 visas which is to fill genuine skill shortages but not simply to displace Australian jobs.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright, I want to move on to the carbon tax compensation. Senator Birmingham, the Government raising this concern that Tony Abbott’s going to take up to $2½ thousand away from families… without the detail of the alternative, the tax cuts, it makes that vacuum easier to fill, doesn’t it, from the Government’s perspective?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, if the Prime Minister’s telling the truth about the election date, there are 194 days to go until polling day. Unfortunately, it looks like Australians are going to be subjected to the longest campaign ever, looking at her current tactics, but I’ll tell you what our approach will be and it’s very clear. We will get rid of the carbon tax and, without the carbon tax, you don’t need carbon tax compensation. However, we will, once we’ve had the chance to see the final budget position going into the campaign, be releasing all of our detailed policies and, as Tony Abbott has made clear, they will include tax cuts, they will include pension increases without a carbon tax. That means Australians will be better off under the Coalition. What’s more, let’s be very clear, the carbon tax package as designed by this Government runs over the forward estimates at a deficit of at least $4 billion, so by getting rid of the carbon tax and all of its associated compensation, much of which, of course, is spent in propping up different parts of industry because of the extreme costs of the carbon tax, you will be saving the budget bottom line money which will provide the capacity along with our other savings to actually direct some money towards tax cuts and pension increases. It’s not rubbish, Craig. I hear you mumbling there. The budget package for the carbon tax is a $4 billion deficit.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well let’s go to Craig Emerson because I want to ask you about the claim that’s been made that families will be up to $2½ thousand worse off. Mr Abbott has said that there will be tax cuts. It’s misleading to suggest that they’ll be $2½ thousand worse off.
CRAIG EMERSON: No, it’s not at all and the first point… at least Simon did reiterate it… they said that without the carbon price there is no need for compensation… that is, that they would withdraw the compensation. Now, he seems to be saying that they will have the pension increases that we gave, the tax cuts that we gave and then he said there will be pension increases and tax cuts on top of that…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s not what I said, Craig.
CRAIG EMERSON: The $70 billion hole just got bigger… just got bigger.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s not what I said.
CRAIG EMERSON: Last night, Jamie Briggs hit Twitter very late at night and described the tax-free threshold increase from $6000 to $18,200 as an electoral bribe, the removal of the 15 per cent contributions tax on superannuation as an electoral bribe. These are actually tax cuts but the Coalition is revealing its true intentions, that it considers tax cuts to be electoral bribes.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I thought they were compensation, Craig, for a new carbon tax.
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, actually, you know, you’ve got that wrong again, Simon…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, well… that’s what the Prime Minister calls it.
CRAIG EMERSON: … because the Schoolkids Bonus comes out of the mining tax. The Schoolkids Bonus…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We weren’t talking about the Schoolkids Bonus, mate.
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, I thought we were because this is exactly what we included in the calculations for the $2,500. The Coalition has said it will get rid of the Schoolkids Bonus, it will reinstate a tax on superannuation for low income earners and it will bring the tax-free threshold back from $18,200 to $6000.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well…
KIERAN GILBERT: Gents, I’m sorry, we’ve got to wrap it up. We’re out of time. Thanks, I appreciate that.
CRAIG EMERSON: Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [unclear]… Cheers, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: Thank you very much for that abridged chat this morning…