The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten formally kicked off his political year at the National Press Club (NPC) yesterday; PM Malcolm Turnbull will do so today in a lunchtime address, each trying to set the agenda in a political time when controlling the political debate has never been tougher.

The stakes are far higher for Malcolm Turnbull, who is badly listing in the polls and considered even by his own side to lack direction; his replacement — be it Tony Abbott or Peter Dutton — is openly speculated on. He needs a strong performance today and to carry it over into Parliament next week to show he’s still got something to offer.

Bill Shorten, however, can coast along. He knows Turnbull is never more than five minutes from stumbling. And, to his credit, he took the risk of taking bold policies to the electorate last year and discovered that, in the absence of Tony Abbott, the Liberals lacked any ability to effectively run a scare campaign. Turnbull’s mooted scare campaign against renewable energy — the basis of his NPC speech according to preview reports — won’t exactly fill Labor with dread.

That’s perhaps the reason why yesterday’s effort from Shorten had a decided sense of complacency about it. True, he dwelt at length on the failures of the political class and the alienation from politics-as-usual, but his prescriptions — supporting the government on entitlements reform, some changes on political donations (hilarious given Shorten’s own performance on donations), gentler politics, town hall meetings where he will look for answers not questions — had the air of the a post-lunch whiteboard session. At least he’s committed to a Senate inquiry into a federal anti-corruption body. That should have the crooks and shonks trembling in fear.

[Fear and protectionism the sad ambitions of a hapless government]

But Shorten’s real priority was jobs (or as he put it, “jobs, jobs and jobs”) for Australians via vocational education and curbing the use of foreign workers. Most of his argument could summed up in one paragraph:

“Exploitation drives down wages, undermines safety – and corrodes our national skills base. Last year, the Immigration Minister issued over 10,400 visas for trade and technician jobs. Yet apprenticeships in these exact sectors are in decline. It is too easy to import skills — rather than train our own people.”

How unsubtle is that? The glib linking of “exploitation” and 457 visas, and the ready answer of more training. The Coalition, he argued, had drastically cut funding to trades training (he skipped over the Labor-inspired debacle of private sector education provision) and we need to avoid becoming “an unskilled enclave in a modernising Asia”. He didn’t commit to additional funding for vocational education but he would conduct a “National Skills Summit”. And there’d be yet another requirement imposed on defence procurement: “one in every 10 jobs, on every single priority project, should go to an Australian apprentice”.

Well I guess that rules out anything being built overseas ever again.

There’s nothing new in this, beyond a summit or two. Indeed, in his focus on trades, Shorten echoes a speech by Julia Gillard in 2011 in which she lauded hard work, Australians who “set the alarm early” and engage in manual labour, and turned her “jaundiced eye” on “socialites”. Shorten is similarly interested in “rewarding Australians who work hard, repaying Australians who play by the rules, who do the right thing — who pay their taxes here”. 

The pitch undoubtedly has much more bite in 2017 than 2011, designed as it is to tap into the disaffected electorate that believes it is doing the right thing when others — variously, brown-skinned people, politicians, multinational corporations, foreigners in general — are not doing the right thing, and getting away with it. But Gillard’s fetishisation of manual labour made little sense then, and Shorten’s makes even less now, given the continued growth of the services sector of the Australian economy in the intervening years. That’s reflected in the data on 457 visas — it’s services categories (software engineers, professional services, hospitality) where Australia has been calling on foreign labour, not trades. And while Shorten gave a nod to the growth of health and social services as an employer, that’s one sector where there’s been a noticeable fall in the use of 457 visas, despite the relentless growth in employment in that sector.

[Despite scandals, 457s help a changing economy]

This is one issue where, for all his nonsense, Malcolm Turnbull had the right instincts, initially looking to a modern innovative economy that embraced our transition to services as a key source of growth, and sought to use it as a platform for exports. It stood, and stands, in dire contrast to Labor’s continued obsession with manufacturing, driven by the strong role manufacturing unions play within the party, and a more general culture — the Greens have it, too — of regarding services jobs as somehow less real than manufacturing, construction and other male-dominated sectors.

Turnbull, of course, has been forced to recant any positive, optimistic economic policy in favour of peddling fear and pandering to the reactionary sentiment within the electorate, and even half-heartedly followed Labor in cracking down on 457 visas. The Australian Financial Review‘s Michael Smith made the excellent point yesterday that now is exactly the wrong time to be targeting foreign workers, given Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is likely to deter many non-white people with IT skills — whether Muslim or not — from moving to the United States, presenting countries like Australia with a massive opportunity to tap into a global pool of skills and talent.

But that sort of thinking appears to be heretical at the moment. Especially in a Labor party that struggles to see employment outside a quaint 1970s narrative of tradies and manufacturing.



Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey