Rob Oakeshott is set to oppose the government’s proposed crackdown on 457 visas, leaving the casting vote to fellow independent Tony Windsor. Photo: Andrew MearesThe Gillard government is running out of time to reach a compromise that would allow its controversial foreign worker visa crackdown to pass through Parliament.
As the government continued to meet with crucial crossbench MPs on Tuesday, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison taunted Labor for being unable to secure the bill’s passage in its current form and being forced to consider significant changes.
“There are amendments that could make a very bad bill a less bad bill,” Mr Morrison said.
The bill – due to be debated in the House of Representatives on Tuesday – would introduce “labour market testing”, forcing companies to prove they had tried to hire Australian workers before seeking to employ someone under the 457 skilled visa scheme.
It would also expand powers of Fair Work inspectors to investigate alleged rorting, as part of a crackdown that has been at the centre of the Gillard government’s election-year agenda and has drawn criticism over the language used about foreign workers.
But the government is facing a battle to get the bill through the lower house, where it needs to secure support from at least five of the seven crossbench MPs. Time is running out because the bill is earmarked for debate in the Senate on Thursday, before Parliament rises for the September election.
The government is trying to find common ground among the crossbench MPs, some of whom are pulling in different directions.
Greens MP Adam Bandt and independents Andrew Wilkie and Craig Thomson support the bill, but only with amendments to remove exemptions from the new labour market testing rules.
Bob Katter is a stern critic of the 457 visa program and had been expected to support the crackdown, but on Monday he described the bill as “window dressing” and put forward his own amendments, which include a cap on the annual 457 visa intake at 6000 and a new register of employers who sponsor 457 visas.
Mr Katter will be unable to garner broad political support for the cap.
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has vowed to oppose the government’s bill, saying existing rules were adequate but should be enforced better, and Peter Slipper has kept his cards close to his chest but is considered likely to vote against it.
This means remaining independent MP Tony Windsor’s decision will be crucial to the bill’s passage. Mr Windsor refused on Tuesday to explain his position, but previously voiced support for the intent of the bill, as long as it was clarified to ensure the burden on business was not too high.
He was comfortable with the market testing rules so long as they simply involved a company placing a job ad to show they could not find any suitable local employees.
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor met crossbench MPs on Monday and Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for Mr O’Connor confirmed the government was considering amendments but could not say what compromise Labor may be prepared to embrace to secure passage of the law.
Mr Katter vowed to continue to pursue the issue if his party held a balance-of-power position in the Senate after the September 14 election.
”We will give them hell unless and until the number of 457 visa grants are reduced to a number closer to 6000 a year, rather than the ALP’s 125,000,” he said.
“And as a party, we will continue to be on the picket lines, waving our Australian and Eureka flags in protest of the importation of foreign fly-ins.”
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox cautioned against “drawing broad conclusions from a tiny number of individual cases of alleged abuse”.
“There are around 110,000 457 visa holders in Australia and the unions – who incidentally utilise the system themselves to hire some of their own officials – can only come up with a handful of alleged cases,” he said.
The Labor-dominated Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee recommended on Monday the bill be passed.
The committee warned of uncertainty over the requirements of labour market testing and called on the government to provide some clarity.
Some stakeholders believed they would have to wait six months after advertising a vacancy before they could employ someone under a 457 visa.
But the committee said the bill was not setting up the six-month period as a minimum wait time. The law would allow employers to apply to use a 457 visa within a six-month period after advertising, it said.
In a dissenting report, Coalition senators said they did not believe an effectively managed temporary labour migration program would threaten Australian jobs.
They accused the government and unions of running an “aggressive media campaign claiming abuse in the 457 visa program” and “demonising both 457 visa holders and their employers”.
The Coalition highlighted “grave concerns” over the rushed process, saying the bill was referred to the committee on June 18 and submissions closed two days later.
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