Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (18:25): Mr Deputy Speaker, we are just sorting out our speaking arrangements. We are just so enthusiastic on this side to tackle the government on the deficiencies in the Migration Amendment (Charging for a Migration Outcome) Bill 2015.
While we are looking a little bit messy, and I know it is bordering on disorderly of me, I want to recognise my daughter Grace, who is in the gallery this evening with her very good friends Sophie and Oliver. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to recognise one of my children in the gallery since my maiden speech in 1996. Given that that anniversary is just around the corner, it is very nice to do so again today. Grace has just become very famous with an appointment to the local commercial radio station as a journalist, and I get to officially congratulate her as a member of parliament this evening.
This is a very important bill, and the integrity of the 457 visa system is critical to the Australian economy. Therefore, we in the Australian community must have confidence in the system as we know it. It is bordering on outrageous that there is no sanction available under our law for applicants for 457 visas who might seek to bribe, in effect, a sponsor under the relevant act. Of course, we welcome the fact that the government has agreed to rectify that situation, but, as the shadow minister has indicated, we believe a lot more needs to be done to further build the integrity of the scheme and to restore public confidence. I will not go through those additional changes; the shadow minister has done so quite eloquently, and they are on the record.
I represent a mining electorate and have a very good grasp of the importance of mining to the Australian economy. Of course, in this place I am the spokesman for the opposition on matters of agriculture, and, as the previous speaker said, there are few areas in which the integrity of the visa system is more important than agriculture. So I have a deep-seated interest in this subject.
We have enough difficulty explaining to the Australian community that from time to time we will need to supplement our skilled labour in this country to do the things we need to do to further build and diversify our economy. We are a small island continent of between 23 million and 24 million people. Many of the projects that land in Australia, particularly some of the bigger mining projects and particularly some of the bigger iron ore projects, are very lumpy in their nature. During the construction phase, as we saw during the recent mining boom, the demand for skilled labour is very intense but short lived. So there will be times when, by necessity, we will rely upon the importation of skilled labour, and the Australian community, I think, struggle with that concept from time to time. They see a relatively high unemployment rate, deficiencies in our vocational education programs, and even a lack of competitiveness in our higher education infrastructure, and they struggle to understand why this is necessary. They have an expectation that their politicians will minimise our reliance on imported skilled labour, and I absolutely understand that. But, picking back up on my earlier points, the very nature of our country, our population and our economy means that from time to time, no matter how much better we deal with our skills formation and the improvement in our learning institutions, we as a country will always rely, in part at least, on the importation of skilled labour.
So, if we are to hope to persuade the Australian people of that point and to then maintain community confidence in the skilled visa programs, we must work together to ensure that the integrity of those programs is without question.
This is a concept, or a principle, which very much applies to the recent debate we had in this place, and in the broader community, about the China free trade agreement. I think it is a settled issue now that the labour market arrangements under the China free trade agreement were less than optimal. Indeed, they were looser—for want of a better term—than those that were found in other free trade agreements and those which apply to our skilled migration program generally.
For the opposition to acquiesce on the China free trade agreement without challenging those provisions would have been a mistake on many fronts. The most obvious mistake, of course, is the impact on the Australian labour market—in other words, the unnecessary displacement of Australian workers by those from other countries. There is also the lack of confidence that might have driven in not only that free trade agreement but also other free trade agreements we might enter into in the future.
It was important for the opposition to highlight those deficiencies, to stand its ground and to argue its case publicly. I think it is settled now that out there in the community the opposition was gaining very broad and majority community support for our campaign to make those changes. But the ongoing building of confidence in the system is the critical point here.
The Roy Hill mine was a subject of much debate when we were in government not that long ago. It is a very good example of the incapacity of a company, or an individual investor or a group of investors, to progress such a large project without being able to demonstrate to the financiers of that project that not only is the iron ore there, the volume there, and the right price there over the course of maybe the next two decades. It is also necessary for them to be able to persuade their bankers—who might be in London—that they will be able to secure the skilled labour necessary to get the project through the construction phase.
It is very helpful to be able to turn up to a London house and say, 'I have an agreement with the Australian government which assures me, if I am unable to secure the skilled labour I require in Australia, that I will, with great certainty, be able to import that labour into Australia.' That is a very small but, I think, succinct example of the importance of having certainty in the system and why we need to have a 457 visa program. It is also a reminder that if we are to continue to rely upon them we do need community confidence. This amendment that the government has agreed to this evening will go a long way toward that. Again, we believe we need more and we will continue to pursue improvements in the program.
I touched on agriculture. I have spoken a little bit about mining. Agriculture is increasingly becoming a capital intensive activity, and in many ways that is a good thing because it will increase our competitiveness in international markets. The dairy industry, for example, is highly automated these days. But increasingly the skills required for the agriculture sector to go up the value curve and to be internationally competitive are increasingly hard to find; and as a country we need to do more about that locally. That fact is that we have an ageing workforce in agriculture and the learning institutions which have traditionally provided those skills in the agriculture sector are not getting the interest from applicants that they were in the past. I have always said, 'Young people will come back to agriculture when they think there is a quid in it,' and I still believe that is true. But
I think there is a role for government to strengthen our learning institutions, our course work and those things that will build the skills we need in agriculture if we are not going to be too reliant on the skills of others from other countries in the future.
The opposition welcomes the government's decision to support the cause for the sanctions against those who seek to pay sponsors for a 457 visa. But, as outlined by the shadow minister, we think there is a long way to go yet to produce an optimal outcome in this area of public policy, and we will continue to pursue those in the future.