Australian visa-holders on tenterhooks as politicians play race card
Months ahead of elections, negative talk of migrants is starting to emerge
Brendan O'Connor, Australian minister for immigration, whose family moved from Tralee to Australia when he was a teenager, says the Labor Party government “will always stand up for Australian workers and Australian jobs”. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Australia’s federal election is six months away, but the phoney campaign has kicked up a notch with the seeming demonisation of people on temporary 457 visas – a great many of them Irish.
The 457 programme is a four-year visa, created to fill skills gaps in Australia with workers from abroad.
The minister for immigration, Brendan O’Connor, says the visa guidelines need to be tightened. He said there have been over 100 sanctions, but this is miniscule given the sheer volume of people. There are 105,325 457 visa-holders in Australia. About 10,000 of them are Irish. O’Connor, whose family moved from Tralee to Australia when he was a teenager, says the Labor Party government “will always stand up for Australian workers and Australian jobs”.
Fine Gael TD and Government chief whip Paul Kehoe raised the 457 visa issue with O’Connor on a visit to Canberra last week. Kehoe said everywhere he went in Australia Irish people told him of their concerns.
‘Aussie workers first’
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was born in Wales and whose communications adviser is a Scot on a 457 visa, has pledged to put “Aussie workers first”.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott – born in England – responded with a reference to asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work. “The government is tolerating people coming into this country and going on welfare and they’re demonising people coming into this country and working from day one,” he said.
Corkman Fergal Davis, a senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales, moved to Australia two years ago on a 457 visa.
He sees parallels with the Celtic Tiger years: “We used to say we were a very tolerant society in Ireland, and then you would hear people saying ‘no one ever came here when there wasn’t any money around, and now people are coming’. And that was said with fairly significant racist undertones. I think the situation in Australia is similar.”
Until last year, people on 457s were entitled to a “living away from home” allowance which meant they could claim certain expenses, including rent, against their tax. It resulted in significant savings but the government saw it as a loophole and ended it. On a 457, you can’t vote or own property, and in New South Wales you have to pay thousands of dollars to send children to public schools free to everyone else.
“The idea that you are coming on some kind of a free ride is disingenuous,” says Davis. “A lot of the rhetoric we are hearing around foreign workers in the election campaign is distasteful . . . The Australian government’s first priority is to employ Australians, but there are gaps within the economy that need filling, and that’s what the temporary visa scheme is for.
“If it’s being abused, then the government should crack down on those abuses, but it shouldn’t demonise a whole class of workers who come here and make a significant and useful contribution to the economy,” he says.
Davis says talking about “foreign workers” in a country predominantly made up of immigrants or their descendants is concerning. “It’s using a dog whistle in that it’s trying to attract voters who have a more racist viewpoint, but it’s trying to do that in a way that they can then say ‘We’re not being racist, we’re just saying we want to give priority to Australian workers’ . . . Both sides of politics here are playing fairly fast and loose with the race card,” he says.
Luke O’Neill, editor of the Sydney-based Irish Echo newspaper, says people are anxious about visa changes.
“The growth in the amount of Irish on the 457 visa in recent years has been almost exponential. The health of that programme, what happens with it, is of huge interest to people who are in Australia already, and to people in Ireland who are thinking of coming here.
‘Rug pulled out’
“There are cases where families have come from Ireland with young kids, rented a house and changed their lives to start things fresh. And then a year or two down the line, the rug is pulled from beneath them and the person on that 457 visa is let go.”
For those on 457s, the next six months until the election will be nerve-wracking.