A Pacific guest worker scheme seems a no-brainer of a policy. With appropriate safeguards, it could provide Australian employers who struggle to find unskilled and semi-skilled labor with a pool of workers and generate a flow of remittances back to Pacific economies.

Even Alexander Downer, despite the Howard Government persistently refusing to countenance a scheme, came out earlier this year to reveal he thought the idea had merit.

Problem is, it pushes all sorts of buttons. The hard Left regards it as virtually akin to slavery and emphasises the possibility for exploitation. Some unions object to foreigners taking Aussie jobs. Senator Doug Cameron, former head of the AMWU, showed the same high level of analysis as when he used to defend protectionism by complaining that guest workers drive down all workers’ incomes and warning of unspecified “problems” and “social consequences”. The Right mutters darkly about the dangers of diseases and bad elements infiltrating Australia.

It’s expected that the Prime Minister will announce an Australian pilot scheme at the Pacific Leaders’ Forum later in the month. The Coalition is waiting to see the Government’s proposal before showing its hand, but today Andrew Robb and Immigration spokesman Chris Ellison called for a “debate” on the issue before a pilot scheme is “imposed” on Australians.

Robb went to New Zealand and looked at the pilot scheme there in early June, professing that he had an open mind on the issue. A number of the problems he identified there – and the way the New Zealanders were handling them – provide the basis for the debate he wants to have before the Government commits to a pilot scheme here. He is right that once commenced a pilot scheme will be difficult to shut down without causing deep anger in Pacific countries, although admittedly the previous Government didn’t have too many qualms about doing that.

The Coalition’s major concerns are likely to relate to ensuring workers return home (the New Zealanders do that by ensuring no one from the same village can participate in the scheme if a worker doesn’t return home, ensuring strong peer and family pressure to return), that employers don’t wear costs like accommodation, travel and immigration processing, and preventing criminals from using the program to enter Australia.

Robb has expressed concern on an issue that is also attracting attention from the Left in Europe as African and Asian skilled workers are recruited to work there – the tendency for developed economies to deplete the labour forces of developing countries, limiting developmental opportunities in those countries. A large guest worker scheme has potential to limit economic development in Pacific states by drawing even skilled workers to Australia for higher wages.

A couple of months ago, when the concern was over a booming economy and labour shortages, complaints about guest-workers stealing local jobs were unlikely to gain traction. Now that talk is turning to recession, a guest worker scheme might become more politically difficult – even if it would take a depression to get Australians to start fruit-picking. Coupled with historically high immigration levels, a scheme could bite the Government. There’s also a clear media double standard to the Government’s disadvantage. John Howard ran a very high migrant intake with virtually no comment from the media and conservative commentators, but Labor is perpetually tagged as “soft” on immigration. Andrew Bolt has already attacked the Government for increasing the migrant intake to address skills shortages.

The likes of Bolt may find themselves in the same camp as the Latte Left on a guest worker scheme. Which, while ironic, will make the politics even more difficult for Labor if unemployment rises.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey