If you’re going to play in the space of bigotry and xenophobia, it’s best to come prepared. At a media conference yesterday, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor struggled to explain exactly how the 457 visa category was being rorted. He offered a couple of anecdotes, and said there’d been over 100 sanctions under the program.

That’s a program that currently sees around 100,000 visa holders at any one time. Even the numerically challenged can see that’s one case in a thousand, and probably far less, assuming O’Connor was using a total rather than an annual figure.

The 457 visa category is indeed rorted — all categories are misused. But it’s likely to be one of the least rorted, because it’s so expensive to locate and bring over foreign workers. And, yes, there are unscrupulous employers who exploit 457 visa holders, something that trade unions and Labor figures like Doug Cameron are justifiably concerned to prevent. But there are unscrupulous employers who exploit workers of all kinds and will exploit employees with poor English, or who need a visa to stay in the country, more than others. There are even unscrupulous employees who exploit their employers. That’s people. That’s why there are laws to prevent and discourage and punish it.

It’s less than a year since the Prime Minister professed surprise that Ministers Chris Bowen and Martin Ferguson had implemented cabinet-agreed policy on Enterprise Migration Agreements to allow Gina Rinehart to bring in workers for a WA mining project, to the fury of unions and the amazement of senior Labor figures who were astonished at how the government could turn what should have been a good news story into yet another self-inflicted wound.

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Now Bowen’s successor is leading the charge against 457s. All policy coherence has been chucked aside in favour of election strategies.

More to the point, as LBJ remarked, don’t get into a p-ssing contest with a polecat. If you’re trying to out-xenophobe someone like Scott Morrison, a foul grub who feels no shame at claiming asylum seekers bring in typhoid, complains about relatives attending the funeral of victims of a boat tragedy and compares asylum seekers to the worst types of criminals, you’re wasting your time. If anything, it merely further embeds xenophobia in the political agenda, an issue that the Coalition will always more successfully exploit than Labor.

Still, it targets a segment of voters that Labor hasn’t paid much attention to for a decade, conservative blue-collar voters who have struggled in the post-reform economy, the sort who were attracted to One Nation and to John Howard’s social conservatism and demonisation of asylum seekers. Labor’s pitch is simple: even if you think we’re softer on asylum seekers than the Coalition, at least we’ll make sure a foreigner won’t take your job.

For the party that oversaw the industry policy reforms of the late ’80s and ’90s, which were all about sending manufacturing jobs overseas because we were no longer prepared to subsidise them, it’s quite an irony.

Not that the Coalition, when it’s not beating up on brown people, doesn’t have its own contradictions. Tony Abbott and Morrison devoted much of the 2010 election campaign to assuring voters they were going to reduce immigration, and vowed to slash net immigration to 170,000 a year (that came a cropper almost immediately at the press conference to announce the policy, when a journalist pointed out that projections indicated immigration was set to fall below 150,000 anyway). Abbott lauds 457 visa holders, football-transfer style, as people who are “joining the team and they’re making a contribution from day one”, in contrast to the way “the government is tolerating people coming to this country and going on welfare”.

Even with the government’s increase in humanitarian visas to 20,000, they are still a fractional contribution to our overall immigration intake compared to the 100,000 457 visa holders here every year.

But contradictions abound when you’re trying to exploit community fears about immigration. Especially when both parties are led by migrants whose families were economic refugees from the UK.

Then of course there are the Greens, who profess deep anger at any obstacles placed in the way of asylum seekers reaching Australia, but who have an abiding concern about skilled migration. Earlier this week, MP Adam Bandt attacked the Prime Minister’s comments on 457 visas as “hollow”, “a show” and “window dressing.” Only the Greens could be relied on to properly crack down on 457 visas by requiring proper labour market testing first. “The tough talk hides some big loopholes,” Bandt complained.

Thus we have a sordid triangle in which each party accuses the other of being soft on some particular brand of foreigner.

At least the 2010 debate, such as it was, over “big” versus “little” Australia had some coherence as a contrast of world views and visions of what sort of Australia we should be in coming decades. Remarkably, we’ve already plumbed new depths on immigration in 2013. Who’d have thought we’d be looking back at 2010 as a relatively high point of informed political discussion …