Whatever the arguments for the changes governing foreign skilled workers announced by Malcolm Turnbull, make no mistake - this is about an embattled government wanting to send a strong political message.
One clue was Turnbull’s reference to placing first not just Australian jobs but “Australian values”. He made mention of “Australian values” both in his Facebook video and his news conference, when announcing the replacement of the 457 visa.
In this context, “Australian values” is itself a value-laden term.
For Turnbull, it was something of a rhetorical juggle, as he acknowledged Australia as an “immigration nation” and noted the many workers “from war shattered Europe” who helped build the Snowy scheme, while declaring Australian jobs must be filled by Australians wherever possible.
The government has been under pressure over foreign workers from left and right – from the ALP (Bill Shorten introduced a private member’s bill to tighten the 457 scheme) as well as from One Nation.
Pauline Hanson was – of course – quick to claim credit for Turnbull’s move.
A few years ago another federal government on the defensive went to a like place. In 2013 Julia Gillard pledged to “stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.
Labor sources at the time said she was tapping into what they described as the “economic patriotism” embedded in the “battler” view of the world; ALP research had found a strong view among voters that there were available jobs Australians couldn’t get. Attitudes are unlikely to have changed, and the Turnbull government knows it.
For the record, in response to Gillard then opposition leader Tony Abbott defended the 457 entrants and accused her of “trying to divide Australians”.
It’s unclear precisely how much difference the Turnbull government’s change – cast to sound dramatic but seen by some as mainly a rebadging – will make.
It is scrapping the 457 visa, under which foreign workers are brought in on four-year visas. It will be replaced by a new Temporary Skill Shortage Visa program with two streams. One will provide a two-year visa; the other, a visa for up to four years.
The long list of requirements will include applicants having at least two years work experience in their skilled occupation; mandatory criminal history checks; and the capacity for just one on-shore renewal under the short-term stream. The short-term stream won’t provide a path to permanent residency. There will be tightened English language requirements for the medium-term stream.
The government has given no estimate of the expected outcome of the change.
Turnbull said that at present there were about 95,000 457 visa holders. But he could not quantify the likely impact of the new system beyond saying: “Because we are narrowing significantly the number of occupations and we are increasing the qualifications that visa applicants need to have, it is our expectation that all other things being equal you will see a material reduction over time of people working on these temporary visas.”
But “it depends upon all other things being equal … which they are not. It depends on the demands of the economy, emerging skill gaps, changes in the economy”.
It’s worth remembering that 457 visa workers are less than 1% of the workforce.
The present list of 651 eligible occupations has been cut by 216, to 435. Some 268 occupations will be available under the new two-year visa, and only 167 will be eligible for the four-year visa.
The occupations chopped range widely, including jobs as diverse as deer farmer, project builder, betting agency manager, chemical engineer, horse trainer, singer, antique dealer, and bed and breakfast operator.
It’s not clear precisely how judgements were made on some of them, such as commissioned police officer, policy analyst, television presenter, and archivist.
Some of the deletions – such as “historian” and “archaeologist” – are hardly jobs to which an “Australians first” rule should apply. Nor will their exclusion from the list have much impact on the Aussie labour market.
Indeed Jenny Lambert, from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pointed out that the 457s were “rarely if ever” applied to many of the deleted occupations. She suggested that the problem with 457s has been one of public perception rather than the scheme’s operation. “The perception of the program is the biggest issue and we need to reset it,” she told Sky.
The Australian Industry Group’s Innes Willox said that “the 457 visa system was a highly valued program but misunderstandings of its use and exaggerations of its misuse led it to become a lightning rod for anti-migration sentiments”.
Supporting the reforms, Willox said: “The temporary skilled visa program should now be considered as settled without the need for further reviews and disruptive policy change”.
In other words, business’ main preoccupation is that the importation of foreign skilled workers is taken off the political football field.
That may be wishful thinking. Meanwhile, eyes will be on whether the government puts any squeeze in the budget on the general immigration program, which has been coming under attack from some critics in a housing affordability debate that’s run increasingly out of the government’s control.