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View from The Hill

Gillard and Abbott bet on Australia’s xenophobia

Julia Gillard has been pushing her pitch against foreign workers while she’s in western Sydney. AAP/Julian Smith

Julia Gillard’s pledge to put foreign workers at the back of the queue for Australian jobs is tapping into what Labor sources describe as the “economic patriotism” deeply embedded in the “battler” view of the world.

Labor research has found a strongly held, almost visceral, view among mainstream voters that there are available jobs which Australians can’t get, and they believe this is not fair. These voters feel that Australians should have the chance to get the jobs – or be given the skills needed for them.

The PM has been pushing her pitch against foreign workers hard while she’s barnstorming western Sydney. In her Sunday address at the University of Western Sydney she pledged “to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back.”

It might be politely dubbed “economic patriotism” but this is the strand of xenophobia that perennially runs through Australian politics.

Gillard has not just brought the line out for western Sydney, although here, with areas of high unemployment, might be thought of as particularly receptive to such a message.

Department of Immigration/The Conversation

Recently the government announced another crackdown on 457 visas. These visas are used to bring in foreign workers sponsored by businesses, which have to establish they cannot get the skills locally. And the government won’t be dropping the issue when Gillard finishes her western Sydney tour – it is likely to be a constant over the next few months.

“We will continue to crack down as necessary to make sure that 457 visas are being used for their proper purpose, which is skills shortages, not replacing Australians who are ready and willing and able to do the work,” Gillard said.

The feedback to Labor is that people believe that employers should have to do a lot more to find locals for the work available.

A measure of Labor’s conviction that this is an issue on which it can get traction is that the government is willing to run the gauntlet of business criticism, at a time when the country needs to boost productivity and unemployment is low.

While 457 visas cover a plethora of skills – indeed, Gillard’s senior communications adviser, Scottish John McTernan, is on a 457 – the public apparently associates them with Gina Rinehart’s much publicised application to bring in workers for the planned Roy Hill mine.

The Conversation

The PM was unable, when pressed, to give specific examples of Australian workers being discriminated against. But this is an election campaign, where perceptions and anecdotes are what count. (Later immigration minister Brendan O'Connor named several instances that suggested misuse of the system).

Asked about the Immigration department recently saying the visa system was working well, Gillard said “I hear and my ministers hear and our local community representatives hear too many stories of times when people were appropriately qualified to do the work and didn’t get the opportunity. So when I’m getting that kind of feedback, the responsible thing is to look at the program.”

Tony Abbott accuses her of a “jarring” assault on foreigners.

He has sought to interpret her comments against foreign workers in a wider context, painting her as casting aspersions on foreigners.

“A very substantial population of western Sydney were foreigners just a few years ago,” Abbott said, “the fact is people from overseas have made a magnificent contribution to our country and trying to stir people up against them is the last thing the Prime Minister should be doing, particularly in western Sydney.”

Of course, migrants and foreign workers who are already in place are not necessarily sympathetic to those who might come.

Abbott, who is playing his own xenophobic card on boat people, also drew an implicitly negative comparison with the asylum seekers, by adding; “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.”

Gillard had an obvious response: this is the man who talked about the arrival of asylum seekers as “a form of peaceful invasion.”

Both sides are demonising their “foreigners” of choice on the low road to September 14.

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