The Gillard government’s inflammatory rhetoric on skilled migration and supposed widespread abuses of the 457 visa scheme still rankle.
As distant observers of the strange goings-on in Canberra, most Western Australians have a healthy scepticism of our politicians.
We all know politicians like to embellish their stories, and scathingly condemn their political opponents, all the while adopting a holier-than-thou attitude to their own activities.
Most of us are dismayed by the poor standard of debate but recognise there is not a lot we can do about it.
And, of course, we have a lot of other things to get on with, like running a business.
But every now and then, something comes along that is truly disturbing.
A prime example is the Gillard government’s campaign against skilled migration and, more specifically, the use of 457 visas.
The prime minister kicked off this campaign with a speech a month ago that effectively accused foreign workers of taking jobs from Australian workers.
People who took the effort to read the prime minister’s speech in full would have found a lot of sensible analysis of labour market issues and growth pressures facing the national economy.
But, like many things the Labor government has done, any good work was far outweighed by inept strategy and strident rhetoric.
Ms Gillard and her newly appointed Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor have followed up with repeated claims the 457 scheme was riddled with rorts.
They have never been able to back that up with evidence.
The pressure must have got to Mr O’Connor, because last month he came out with the extraordinary claim that breaches of the scheme could “exceed over 10,000” cases.
It was the kind of headline-grabbing number that was sure to get a run on the news bulletins.
However, it had no basis in fact, and led to the minister being challenged by business leaders like CCI WA chief executive James Pearson.
Mr Pearson said business deserved to know on what basis the government was making its proposed changes to make it harder for temporary migrants to receive a 457 visa.
“The blanket approach the government proposes to take is not supported by evidence of widespread abuse of the existing program,” he said.
“Many Australian employers, both government and private sector, depend on skilled migrants to supplement their local workforce to be able to provide services that the community needs and to build projects that generate wealth and employment for Australia.”
Mr O’Connor was eventually forced to concede he had effectively made up the number. In making his concession, he just dug a bigger, politically embarrassing hole for himself.
“I was asked to sort of give an estimate and that is my estimate,” Mr O’Connor told the ABC.
“I’m making a forecast like others have made forecasts. The difference is I seem to be being challenged, fine.
“My point is this – there are transgressions, they’re more than a few, they’re more than negligible. I've sought to estimate what I think is the appropriate number.
''We don't have an exact, precise figure. That's not possible under the current arrangements but it is significant.'
In other words, after conceding there was no meaningful data to support his claims, he simply turned around and repeated his assertion that the number of breaches was significant.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the minister had been “caught out” making up the number to justify his “inflammatory rhetoric”.
Mr O’Connor’s comments coincided with a government report that suggested verified cases of employers discriminating in favour of overseas workers were rare.
“Examples where an employer would be sanctioned would be rare and limited to the small number of employers not abiding by their commitment,” the Department of Immigration and Citizenship discussion paper said.
Latest figures show there were 105,600 holders of 457 visas in Australia at the end of March.
Some may see the large number as a problem. It should really be seen as confirmation of the scheme’s value, by allowing foreign workers to come into Australia to fill temporary skills gaps as they are needed.