You get what you deserve: Big business and immigration policy

One day in my year 12 Economics class, Mr Darling walked in with a small stack of A4 pages. There was a quote plastered in bold type covering the entire page, “You get what you deserve”, a backpage headline pulled straight from the Herald Sun. Shane Crawford, a high profile Australian Rules Football player for Hawthorn, had just been suspended and he apparently muttered the words to the media on his way out of the Tribunal.

Mr Darling was a decent teacher but motivation was not in his wheelhouse. As he handed each of us a printout, he said we would get the score we deserved at the end of the year. For some unknown reason, I stuck that A4 page on the inside cover of my exercise book and this moment from my otherwise unremarkable year 12 is etched in my memory. Economics turned out to be my best subject but as they say, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

From time to time, I think about “you get what you deserve”. Mr Darling’s words did not resonate with me. As I grow older, I see how manifestly untrue “you get what you deserve” is. Many people in life don’t get what they deserve. Most deserve better. But very occasionally, this saying neatly sums up a complex situation.

I’ve worked in and around migration policy for the best part of eight years and I’m increasingly becoming convinced the big business community in Australia doesn’t have the will or the ability to prosecute a public argument on migration. Almost meekly, they sit by the sidelines and watch as others shape discourse and policy.

They get what they deserve.

Perhaps this is unjust as there are individuals from the big end of town who do their best, both for themselves and their companies as well as the public interest. Yet as a community, big business are failing on migration policy at the very time they need to be leading from the front. Some might disagree but an engaged, outward looking business community is one of the foundations for a successful migration policy framework in the 21st century.

These thoughts were prompted by events last week. The CFMEU ran an extremely effective ad during Masterchef on Sunday night skewering the Chinese-Australia Free Trade Agreement. This was a loud public bang in an until then slow burning campaign that has caught the attention of the broader union movement, the Opposition and crossbenchers, and increasingly, the general public. When ChAFTA was signed, I thought there would be a bit of bluster on the migration provisions. This would blow over and everything would get signed.

I don’t believe this anymore. A clear ‘anti-migration’ perception of the agreement has formed outside of Canberra. The CFMEU and ETU have been on top of their game, creating a campaign that has cut through technical jargon and politics. The ALP has been forced to listen and advocate, a difficult position with Free Trade Agreements as they are nearly impossible to change or retrofit once agreed.

I believe the union campaign is without substance. There are several minor matters in ChAFTA that should be further explained. But I do not think the union campaign is xenophobic or motivated by race. A more likely explanation is one found at the centre of many issue-based campaigns, a combination of self-interest and apprehension of government intentions. Anyone calling the campaign racist has not done the hard yards and sought to explain the agreement to a now-skeptical public. Free trade has been grudgingly accepted by the public for decades and advocates need to continue to demonstrate why these agreements are welfare enhancing.

To recap for those who have wisely avoided reading the technical documents, there are three policy changes central to the union campaign:

  • The removal of advertising jobs to Australians before applying for a 457 visa for Chinese citizens:
    • ChAFTA will remove job advertising for about one percent of the 457 visa program. In general, advertising jobs is not an effective method to get Australians, especially those already unemployment, into the labour market. Employers respond to prices more than regulation. This points to increasing the fees of the 457 visa as a more effective method to provide Australians preferential access in the labour market. In my opinion, this is a small, positive change.
  • The removal of ‘in-person’ skill assessments for Chinese citizens:
    • Under ChAFTA, Chinese citizens are subject to the same provisions as Canadian, British, German and over 90 per cent of all other visa applicants. The removal of in-person skills assessment does not change the fact any Chinese 457 visa holder will still require the relevant occupational licensing and a paper-based skills assessment before they get their visa. Anyone in the world can get a dodgy qualification, you don’t need to be Chinese.
  • The introduction of “Investor Facilitation Agreements”:
    • These agreements are based on current legislation and ministerial powers. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton could sign an IFA tomorrow. They have been rolled up into the ChAFTA as a tactic to push negotiations over the line. In reality, they are completely separate. But the government cannot use this to negotiate with the Chinese government on one hand and then expect the public to ignore it completely. There should definitely be more transparency around the process. A commitment to publicly releasing all agreed IFAs would go a long way to demonstrate how negative effects on Australian workers are illusory.

The union campaign has excelled at highlighting a specific, negative interpretation of these three policy issues. But to my mind, there is a commonsense rebuttal available for each concern.

I’m yet to see such rebuttal from the big business community. Now the best they could manage was tin-eared and late to the party. To date the biggest shot I’ve seen fired is a front page story in the Australian, led by Rio Tinto’s Andrew Harding saying the union campaign “feels xenophobic”. Twiggy Forrest and Kerry Stokes also lent support.

Perhaps broader business support is there behind the scenes. But the time for helpful phone calls ended the day the text of the agreement was published. For weeks now, the policy sales job has been missing in action. Andrew Robb has been left high and dry to do the heavy lifting but with the government already in the doldrums, it was hardly an easy task. The entrance of Harding and Co into the public debate can be best described as reactive. Having let the unions set the boundaries of the debate, there isn’t much ability to pivot back to the presumably positive changes in ChAFTA, such as the removal of quotas and tariff barriers.

There is no reason the business community couldn’t have rolled out a focused campaign to support a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with our single largest trading partner. A handful of industry leaders could have come together and flogged the media high and dry about the benefits of the agreement. An advertising buy, business lunches, a press club speech or two, some market research. Anything. Showcase examples of how the Australian-Chinese business relationships have made Australia richer over the past two decades. Those cheap TVs didn’t make themselves.

Instead, the collective passivity demonstrates the tendency of big business to jump in when it suits, not when there is a fight to be had or gains to be made. This is a dirty little bipartisan secret in Canberra that many in government are unwilling to speak up about. In this example, the cost could be a more fractured relationship with Australia’s most important economic partner.

Big business cannot be relied on to advocate for policy, even one squarely in their interests. When I talk to people about the 457 visa program, they picture a poor bastard on shitty pay getting exploited by their employer. This happens because those who gain the most from the program – Australia’s largest companies – sit back and let the narrative be dictated by others. There are about 35,000 employers using the 457 visa program and if I were a betting man, I’d wager every single member of the Business Council has at least one 457 visa holder on their books, with an average somewhere between 20 to 100 depending on the industry. No-one imagines the computer programmer, the market researcher, the financial analyst, the management consultant, the surgeon, the university researcher or the CEO, let alone state government sponsored nurses and teachers.

Highly paid, highly skilled, filling vacancies, teaching Australian’s and importing innovation with an average salary of over $88,000, well above full time average weekly earnings. This is what the picture of the 457 visa program should be. Yet when the current inquiry being led by the Senate Committee on Education and Employment looks around for evidence of this, they see nothing. For months they have heard stories of worker exploitation and not once have they heard from an ASX200 company about the benefits of temporary and circular migration for business, local economies or Australia as a whole. Perhaps these inquiries are viewed as worthless in Sydney and Melbourne. This is regrettable as they are markers in a debate to capture the public imagination and inform the bias of parliamentarians.

Worse, big business remain silent when news breaks about more short-term self-interest. The hospitality industry has been granted in-principle approval for a lower salary threshold for the 457 visa. The agreement will create the option to negotiate a salary threshold of $48,510. This is 10 per cent lower than the standard program threshold of $53,900. This is despite wage growth in the Accommodation and Food Services sector being below the labour market average from September 2009 (when the 457 visa program was reformed) to March 2015.

I can’t think of a single policy decision that is laced with more risk to the 457 visa program than this. This is the type of decision that gets crushed by history. This will hurt big business as the pendulum will inevitably swing back faster in the opposite direction, probably soaking the program in administration. Why any business or industry leader would let a program as important as this – filling skilled vacancies – be held ransom by a small minority of dodgy operators I do not know.

Unfortunately this goes beyond ChAFTA and salaries for the hospitality sector.

Migration is going to become one of the defining areas of public policy of the 21st century, a battle of increasing security concerns and hyper-nationalism against how liberal we want to call our societies. Business communities will need to be at the forefront of this fight, for their own self-interest above anything else. I have little confidence based on current trends this will occur. Building a narrative where migrants contribute to our national story instead of a story where every new arrival is viewed with suspicion is not going to happen by itself.

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