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June 25, 2013

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (21:22): May I thank my colleagues on the other side of the chamber for their endearing support, and I am sure they are here to stay for the duration of the debate. No, they are not—the member for Braddon has abandoned me already, along with the member for Scullin and the member for Chifley. I do rise to speak in relation to the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013.

Honourable members interjecting—

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Gippsland has the call and the right to be heard in silence.

Mr CHESTER: With great assistance from my esteemed leader, the member for Wide Bay and the member for Calare. I thank them for their support as I rise to speak in relation to the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. Instead of reasoned debate on this issue, we have seen vilification and, I would argue, irresponsible behaviour on behalf of the minister. The coalition has serious concerns about this bill and the government’s handling of the entire issue for its own base political motives. Not least of our concerns is the fact that this bill has not been subjected to a regulatory impact statement, despite the fact that it will have significant impacts on small- and medium-sized enterprise and, in fact, big business across Australia.

There has been a lack of proper consultation with the Australian business community. And this bill contains a bizarre back-to-the-future attempt to reintroduce labour market testing, which operated from 1996 to 2001 and was found at that time to be ineffective, costly and a significant delay to employer recruitment action. But most concerning of all is that the bill is based on a false premise. The government has made up the numbers to suggest widespread abuse of the 457 scheme and the minister should be ashamed of the way that he has sought to divide Australians on this very important issue.

Labor’s attack on the skilled migration issue has been a desperate distraction from their own failures in relation to the broader issue of border protection policies. The Australian people are not mugs; they understand what is going on in this debate. This is a diversionary tactic which undermines a valid system in our community. The Prime Minister and the previous minister for immigration spent years telling Australians and also telling international markets that they had the balance right in relation to the 457 skilled migration visas; yet now we have the Prime Minister and her senior cabinet colleagues campaigning in Western Sydney telling people that this whole 457 system is out of control.

To illustrate my concerns in relation to this issue I want to refer directly to an incident involving the 457 visa holders employed by a firm in my electorate, Briagolong Engineering. By way of background, Briagolong Engineering has been incorporated since 1986 and its managing director, Chris Lupton, has 35 years experience in construction, offshore resources and power generation industries. As a selling point, the company proudly and openly advertises that it can readily expand its work crew to support larger projects utilising both Australian and internationally sourced workers through the 457 program. So there is no secret there at all. The company openly advertises that it will hire international workers on demand if the situation warrants such employment contracts.

It is a legal and well-recognised part of commercial activity in Australia hiring overseas workers on these 457 visas. The 457 visa is a dominant component of Australia’s temporary skilled migration program. In the case of the firm that is based in Stratford, Briagolong Engineering, it has helped the firm secure large jobs at comparatively short notice. Particularly during the high-demand phase of the mining boom, accessing skilled workers for small regional companies like Briagolong Engineering has not been that easy. But it is a well-regarded local company which also hires apprentices and trains its own skilled workforce. So you can imagine the anger, the frustration and the disappointment that the owners of this company must feel when they are targeted by this government and when they are singled out for union activity on a work site in Werribee, near Melbourne.

As Victorian members would be aware, the unions want to force all contracts in Victoria to abide by conditions set on the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant. The employment conditions on that job were so generous that local tradesmen working on that project started calling it Treasure Island. If that were to become the precedent, the basis upon which all large-scale construction projects and infrastructure projects were to be built in Victoria, it would be very difficult for any government to build anything at all in Victoria in the future. Apart from being a hideously expensive white elephant in itself, the project was an industrial relations nightmare, and the union wants it to be used as a benchmark for all further projects.

It is against that backdrop that the unions picketed the project in Werribee where Briagolong Engineering had a contract to construct two steel water storage containers. It got to the stage—and it was well publicised at the time—that workers were actually flown into the site on a helicopter. It is hard to imagine anything much more bizarre in Australia—where workers legally employed to be in Australia, undertaking a project with a company that has more than 25 years history as a successful business, are forced to fly over a picket line just to continue their work. It is disappointing that senior members of the Labor Party in Victoria actually supported the picket line.

Since that event, Briagolong Engineering has been the subject of intense scrutiny from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, culminating in an on-site audit of the company on Friday in Stratford. Is that just a coincidence? I fear not. I have some questions for the minister for immigration, in particular, in relation to that issue. I have been informed that the order to visit Stratford and audit this company came directly from the minister’s office. So I will be inviting the minister to come into this place and confirm or deny this allegation. Did the minister or someone in the minister’s office order the department to visit Stratford and audit Briagolong Engineering? If that is the case, can the minister explain why such action was taken? Why send a departmental officer three hours from Melbourne when previous desktop audits had not indicated any wrongdoing?

It is my understanding that Briagolong Engineering has been compliant in relation to its use of 457 visa holders and has never been accused of any major breaches. This looks and sounds a lot like a ministerial office being used to do the bidding of the union movement. I fear that Briagolong Engineering has been targeted, because that is the way the Labor government is forced to do business, the way it has been forced to operate, to stay in the good books with the union movement in order to secure funding for its own election campaigns.

The union movement owns this government. We have seen countless examples of Labor ministers doing the bidding of their union bosses, from the flawed Safe Rates legislation demanded by the TWU to this scurrilous attempt to win union approval by vilifying 457 visa holders. Let me say to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship on behalf of small- and medium-sized businesses owners across Australia: call off the union heavies—




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