Many years ago as an unskilled migrant worker to Australia, I, and hundreds of others, sailed into the magnificent Sydney Harbour, past rocky, wooded headlands and beautiful waterside homes just like we’d seen in the Australia government promotional movies in the UK.
The ship slid into Circular Quay and moored by the city’s famous bridge. It was just like Australia House in London had promised in its enticing pitch for British migrants. This was heaven. This was the workers’ paradise. Then we immigrants were off-loaded onto buses, driven out of the city and a long time later deposited at an immigrant hostel, the Nissan huts of a former army camp, beside parched summer paddocks on the far western outskirts of the city. A bit of a disappointment, and not what we’d been given to expect. But, fair enough. You can’t expect everything at once.
The name of the suburb was Rooty Hill. It was the very edge of working class Sydney. Fifty-two years later, the same suburb, now part of a dynamic outer Sydney region, but still very much working class, was the starting point of Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s desperate attempt to retain these votes for her minority government in the federal elections on September 14.
Gillard was also born in Britain, so was the leader of the Liberal Opposition, Tony Abbott. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s 23 million people were born overseas. Seven million have immigrated to Australia since white invasion and settlement. None of this history prevented Gillard unashamedly playing the race card in her desperate attempt to remain in office.
It is a cynical appeal to the angst generated by constant job losses – 1,200 job cuts were announced in a single day in February, the government destroyed 5,400 public sector jobs last year, and the NSW government destroyed a further 15,000. And instead of pointing to the employers and government who are doing the sacking, Gillard is blaming overseas workers for taking Australian jobs.
Workers as commodities
Her lies target workers who have come to Australia on ‘457’ temporary visas. The visa allows only a four-year period of residence. The scheme puts all the power in the hands of the employers and the agents who organise the deal, while treating the workers as mere commodities with few rights. It was introduced by the former Tory government of John Howard in 1996 to bring in cheap, skilled labour from developing countries like the Philippines and the Pacific region, to plug the labour shortage.
In her speech Gillard pledged “a fight to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back.” She often reiterates the same sentiments, elevating the alleged threat into a major policy issue.
Her stand echoes that of the trade union bureaucracy. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has launched a phony campaign to defend ‘Aussie’ jobs against ‘rorting’ (fraudulent abuse) by employers.
National Construction Division Secretary of the Construction Forestry and Mining Energy Union, Dave Noonan, said there is an obvious abuse of the 457 visa system by business to import cheap foreign labour while local workers struggle to find work.
The powerful CFMEU is campaigning against the use of 457, particularly in the construction and mining industry, with a nationalistic and frequently racist call for the protection of ‘Aussie’ jobs.
Immigration Minister, Brendan O’Connor announced a tightening of the ‘rules’. This would do nothing to fundamentally change the scheme. Employers will continue to abuse 457 as long as it exists. That is what 457 is about – cheap labour and abuse of workers.
The right wing Liberal opposition is trying hard to outdo the government’s racism. Shadow minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, launched a vitriolic attack on asylum seekers released into the community on bridging visas while they await clarification of their status.
He said they should be subject to “mandatory behaviour protocols”.
Morrison’s pretext for his chilling call was an alleged assault on a woman by a Sri Lankan man. This “should be a wakeup call”, he said, and demanded a freeze on all bridging visas.
Going even further, he added that police should be advised of people with bridging visas who were released into the community in their jurisdiction, and there should be an incidence reporting mechanism which would enable the public to report whatever they considered suspicious to the government. His leader, Tony Abbott, refused to dissociate himself from the divisive and inflammatory demands.
The only way to defeat these racist attacks is to repeal 457 and bring workers in as immigrants, with all the rights of any other Australian workers and citizens. Instead of this Gillard and the union leaders have vilified them and tried to divert attention away from the real causes of the growing crisis: big business, the banks and the government she leads.