Much of the reaction to the government’s scrapping of the 457 visa program has been premised on the idea that, welcome or not, the move is largely political and practically inconsequential. Responding to Malcolm Turnbull’s insistence last week that “Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs,” Bill Shorten described the surprise move as a “con job” not a “crackdown”. After all, he said, foreign nurses and mechanics would continue to be able to come here to take local jobs.

The commentariat, by and large, has bought into this line: that is, whatever their merits, the changes will have little practical effect, apart from serving as a red meat offering by Turnbull to the increasingly alienated conservative base of his party. Accordingly, media reports have described the changes as “an illusion act,” “merely symbolic” and “meaningless”.

[Poll Bludger: 457 visa changes are naked populism]

As my partner and I have learned firsthand, however, there’s nothing illusionary about the changes. Just days before the announcement, she secured a study visa on the expectation of finding work and sponsorship after graduation, putting us on the path to eventual permanent residency. Now, despite committing thousands of dollars and significant time and effort to the promise of being able to stay here, we will most likely have to leave Australia at the end of her study. Her area of interest, beauty therapy, is among the several hundred occupational fields to be culled or downgraded on the skilled occupations list, which sets out which jobs firms can sponsor foreign workers to do. With the introduction of new work experience requirements, she won’t be eligible for sponsorship. More importantly, even if she could qualify, we wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country after four years of employment.

Ultimately, we’ve invested in a future that was closed off with literally no advance notice. Unsurprisingly, our investment feels a lot less worthwhile today than it did two weeks ago. Even at a conservative estimate, there must be thousands of other productive and law-abiding foreign residents in similar situations, many of whom probably have more sympathetic stories than ours.

Nations, of course, are entitled to manage their borders as they choose, and there will no doubt be Australians, especially those anxious about their work prospects, happy to see the back of people like us.

But for all the discussion of labor market needs and skill shortages, there has been remarkably little reflection on the impact of the 457 program’s demise on the pool of future Australians. This is odd for a country built on immigration like Australia, especially when the indications are that the effect of these changes will be profound.

[The 457 ways to keep foreign workers while pandering to racists]

On Monday’s Q&A, assistant minister for immigration and border protection Alex Hawke couched the issue in the usual terms of gaps in the labour market, remarking: “These are temporary visas. These have never been about permanent visas.”

In fact, 457 visa-holders have been one of the main sources of long-term migration, with almost a fifth of the 190,000 permanent residents accepted last year coming via the employer-sponsored route. With the list of occupations under which you can apply for residency slashed from more than 600 to just a third of that, it’s now much less feasible for migrants to settle down after several years of working and contributing to society.

This is the great irony in the debate about “Australian values” and citizenship following the separate announcement, just a day after the 457 bombshell, of tightened rules for naturalisation. While predictably generating more debate about national identity than the visa changes, the tougher citizenship criteria will in fact probably have less of an impact on the future makeup of Australia.

With the 457 visa scrapped, a large swathe of would-be Australians — for most of whom questions of English proficiency are irrelevant, never mind support for FGM or child marriage — will never get a chance to take the citizenship test at all.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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