If you’re going to hit the panic button, it helps if that button actually achieves something and does it effectively. What’s surprising about yesterday’s 457 visa “abolition” announcement from the government is that it stands a relatively good chance of achieving its political goal, while having minimal impact on the economy.

It is, of course, a profound act of hypocrisy from Turnbull and the rest of his party. When Julia Gillard started the bashing of foreign workers back in 2013 by making changes to the 457 system, Turnbull, like his colleagues, defended them to the hilt as you’d expect the stout tribunes of the business sector to do. But nearly four years later, the visas have “lost credibility” — even though the Coalition has been in government for all but six months of the intervening period. Moreover, while the system was apparently working sufficiently well in 2013 that there was no need for significant change, it now turns out that Bill Shorten had by that time — at least according to Turnbull — opened the floodgates. It’s all very like the middle-class welfare cuts the Liberals denounced when in opposition — but once in government, they went much further. Or, at least, that’s what they want voters to think.

[Despite scandals, 457s help a changing economy]

In fact, 457 visas have been an important mechanism for the workforce to respond to changing demand patterns — since the Rudd years, construction, mining and health 457s have been replaced with tech sector and hospitality industry 457s as the most common visas, reflecting a changing economy. And, yes, they’ve also been persistently rorted by some employers that have evaded market testing requirements and exploited 457 workers who don’t know their rights, at the expense of Australian workers. What’s needed is a tightening, not the removal, of the temporary worker system and a reversal of the ballooning categories in which visas are allowed.

And, in fact, that’s more or less what the government is aiming for — but under the pretence of abolishing the whole scheme. Call these new visas 754s — different name, same product. A couple of hundred occupations, many apparently cut and pasted from the jobs list for the Golgafrincham “B” ark, have been removed from the long list of applicable jobs. Variety artists. Homeopaths. Judges. IP lawyers. Funeral directors. Dog racing officials. Intelligence officers (!?). But the two sectors currently using 457s the most, tech and hospitality, don’t appear to face significant changes: only a small number of jobs have been removed from the tech industry list; chefs, cooks and restaurant managers remain on the list, as do medical and health occupations — and a huge number of trades positions.

Applicants will need demonstrated experience in the occupation and higher standards of English language proficiency and employers will face “mandatory labour market testing, unless an international obligation applies” and “strengthened requirement for employers to contribute to training Australian workers”. But Tuesday’s announcement was notably light on what exactly the “strengthened requirements” on training would entail, and it said nothing about the fact that labour market testing — already much honoured in the breach rather than the observance — is already “mandatory”.

[Why temporary migration is a permanent thing]

In short, the changes will have minimal effect but will might make it slightly harder for employers to exploit the system. And the renaming will allow the government to claim it has gone one further than Labor — you’ll be hearing the word “abolish” a lot. Business is broadly on board with this approach — although the government won’t thank them for being less than subtle about how this is primarily a renaming of a program that had earned a bad reputation. “An Opportunity To Rebuild Public Confidence,” the Business Council called it, because “the capacity for businesses to hire temporary workers to fill genuine skill shortages has been an overall boon for Australia.” “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,” said Innes Willox, head of employer group AIG. “The temporary skilled visa program should now be considered as settled without the need for further reviews and disruptive policy change.” 

The renaming is the first of a series of steps the government will take to cater to populist sentiment within the community, with immigration restrictions set to be further increased. Unlike with 457s, expect the immigration changes to be more substantive. While business supports high immigration, it’s not an issue that directly affects their operations, so the government will have a freer hand to plumb the deepening waters of xenophobia in the electorate.

Peter Fray

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