Thursday, May 31, 2012

The "yellow peril" again?

Much of the world --mainly the vast countries of India and China  -- is undergoing rapid economic development.  The raw material of that  developent is of course people  -- followed closely by steel.  Steel is needed for everything, from machinery to buildings.  And steel is made from coal and iron ore.  So the demand for those two inputs is growing exponentially. 

Providentially, Australia is relatively close to both East and South Asia.  And Australia's West coast has gargantuan reserves of readily recoverable iron ore while Australia's East coast has gargantuan reserves of readily recoverable coal.

So Australian companies are digging like crazy and will pay almost anything to get the workers who work the digging machines and do all the associated tasks.  But the demand for skilled workers willing to work in isolated areas is so difficult to meet that it is hampering the development of new mines.  Solution:  Import skilled workers.  And the Australian government has agreed to that -- issuing "EMA" permits.

Enter the unions.  And enter  people with the traditional Australian fear of "cheap" workers from China.  The result is a deeply unattractive debate.

JULIA Gillard's concessions to unions over skilled migration in the mining sector have inflamed xenophobic sentiments, sparking business warnings of potential damage to Australia's relations with its Asian trading partners.

As the Prime Minister last night strongly defended her policy of putting Australian jobs first, the mining sector complained that "racist innuendo" surrounding Labor's new Enterprise Migration Agreements had taken politics to "a new low".

Former Queensland Labor treasurer Keith De Lacy, a former Macarthur Coal chairman, said "a fair bit of xenophobia" had underpinned the debate over EMAs, while the chief executive of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, Steve Knott, likened it to the debate over the White Australia policy. And in an address to the Minerals Council of Australia's annual dinner last night, Rio Tinto managing director David Peever warned against the dangers of divisiveness.

While the opposition yesterday demanded the Prime Minister pull her backbench into line or risk alienating Asian giants including China and Japan, former federal MP Pauline Hanson told The Australian that mining sector jobs had to be reserved for Australians.

The former One Nation leader declared she had "grave concerns" about EMAs, as north Queensland independent MP Bob Katter warned on his website: "Most Australians do not believe our country should be run by foreign interests who are determined to enforce a master-slave situation and undermine our workers' wages."

The highly charged rhetoric follows Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's decision last week to allow the Roy Hill iron ore project in Western Australia's Pilbara - which is 70 per cent owned by Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting - to hire up to 1700 foreign workers for the proposed $9.5 billion mine's construction.

Despite the design of EMAs having been settled months previously, Ms Gillard told union officials last Friday she was "furious" about the Roy Hill EMA and on Tuesday she agreed to the formation of a Labor caucus committee to oversee Mr Bowen's handling of future agreements.

Yesterday, the debate took a fresh turn as business leaders and the opposition warned that Labor had opened the door to a rise in xenophobic and racist sentiment. Pointing to comments from Mr Katter and Labor MPs including Kelvin Thomson and Doug Cameron, they said the debate about foreign labour had taken a distasteful turn that was against Australia's interests.

Mr De Lacy attacked the involvement of the Labor caucus committee, declaring the government had already taken two years to work out EMAs, which can be awarded to mega-projects with more than $2bn in investment and 1500 employees. "It is just economic vandalism to fiddle with it in this way for all the wrong reasons," Mr De Lacy told The Australian.

"And the wrong reasons are: it's not as though there's people there; there's a fair bit of xenophobia involved with it. It just proves once again that the resources sector increasingly is feeling that it is being treated as the enemy. "Are we the only country in the world that treats as the enemy that sector driving the economy and driving prosperity?"

Mr Knott accused critics of the agreements of resorting to "racist innuendo" that he likened to the debate over the White Australia policy. "The embarrassing political discourse surrounding Australia's need for a targeted migration policy to address peak construction labour demands has taken politics to a new low," he said.

"We're deeply concerned a number of our elected politicians appear to have joined the current campaign of negativity, lies and self-interested fear-mongering, complete with recurring misinformation about migrant rates of pay and sub-standard treatment.

"The racist innuendo and slurs against these workers is abhorrent and divisive, and must stop."

Mr Peever last night told the MCA dinner that "divisiveness can have no future in the vibrant Australia to which we aspire, where all Australians can be better off and continue to enjoy the unique fruits of this great land".

"Mining has a pivotal role to play in creating this future for all Australians and for our country," he said. "Complacency and inadequate understanding of the drivers for the sector are our enemies."

Howard government foreign minister Alexander Downer said the reaction from the unions and some elements of the Labor Party to the EMA was a profound embarrassment for Australia.

"It was a really ugly outbreak of xenophobia, and if Australia wants to work with Asia and work with its region, it's got to get over this sort of behaviour," he said.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said she believed Labor MPs, including Senator Cameron, had framed their recent comments about the EMA to appeal to racist and xenophobic sentiment.

"It sends a very poor message to our region that we don't welcome foreign workers," she said.

"These projects will not go ahead unless we are able to access workers from overseas. We should be welcoming them."

Ms Bishop said Ms Gillard should reprimand members of her caucus for resorting to "inflammatory and racist language". Ms Gillard said last night Australia would always need skilled workers and that demand would increase as the economy continued to grow.

"While grappling with that challenge, Labor will do what we have always done - put Australian jobs first," the Prime Minister said through her spokesman.

"This is an important policy matter, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition shouldn't be trying to exploit it. If the Liberal Party genuinely cared about Australian jobs, they would join with the government in supporting the Australian car industry; the Australian steel industry; as well as the retail sector, through tax cuts and cash payments."

South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon warned that while he welcomed skilled migrants, it was fair for people to ask whether policies were configured to ensure that Australians were given every opportunity to access work.


A face behind the "yellow peril"

Chinese worker is a good man - and a godsend

TO his boss, Chinese boilermaker Yong Jun Li is a godsend.  The 40-year-old is part of a small team of tradesmen, some Australian, some Chinese, who are busy in Perth's southern suburbs making mechanical anchors for the Gorgon gas project in Western Australia's far north.

Mr Yong, his wife Lan Hua Wang, 42, and their 16-year-old daughter Xi Li came to Australia in stages, starting with Mr Li in 2007 on a 457 work visa.

He rejects the accusations that migrant workers like him are cheap labour or are taking jobs away from Australians.  He understands he is needed, and does not feel any resentment from his co-workers.

Mr Yong's view is straightforward: work should be based on merit regardless of where a person comes from or the colour of their skin. If the Australian is better at the job, he should get the job. If the Chinese 457 visa worker is better, the gig should be his.

"If my work is good I deserve the job, if it's no good I should go home," Mr Yong said.

Blake Engineering manager Dave Gibney said his business would be in trouble without him.  "He's the best boilermaker we've had come through here by a long shot," Mr Gibney said.

In turn, the Li family has grown to love their new life in Perth.   Their daughter is doing well at high school and wants to study business at university.  His wife is working six days a week as a cleaner and she and her husband save enough each week to pay for extra tutoring.

They also hope to buy a house one day if they are accepted as permanent residents so they can grow old in the country they say gave them the biggest opportunity of their lives.  "I like Australia. I am very happy," said Mr Yong, who also studies English at TAFE.

Mr Gibney said he tried hard, and for a long time, to fill his workshop with local workers before turning to 457 visas to top up its workforce.

WA, which has an estimated $225 billion worth of projects under way or in the pipeline, accounts for almost one-quarter of the 457 visas issued in Australia.

The WA government's Workforce Development Minister Peter Collier says the top priority in his portfolio is to prepare West Australians for work but that skilled migration "will be a necessary strategy to fill those jobs unable to be filled by the local workforce".

He says research by the state's Department of Training and Workforce Development suggests the state could have 150,000 fewer skilled workers than it needs within five years. By 2020, the deficit could be 210,000 workers.

The WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry has watched the state's labour market tighten, and says temporary skilled migrants play a vital role in helping fill the short-term needs of many projects in the construction phase where there are shortages for workers with specific skills.

"WA faces labour and skills shortages in many industries," a chamber spokesman said.  "If we don't boost the current growth in the workforce, WA will fall 210,000 workers short by the end of the decade.  "In certain industries, there are simply not enough workers locally to meet demand."

Mr Yong has put in his application for permanent residency and expects to receive an answer within a week.  "I hope I can live in Australia," he said.


Gillard turns policy gold into ugly national debate

IMMIGRATION Minister Chris Bowen, in parliament this week, has outlined an indisputable rationale for an unambiguously good policy of the Gillard government. In promoting the economic advantages that will accrue to all Australians through the first Enterprise Migration Agreement, struck for the massive Roy Hill iron ore project, Mr Bowen has correctly pointed out that the option of recruiting up to 1700 temporary foreign workers will underpin the creation of 6700 jobs.

"This project is vital for Australia's future," he said, "and this agreement is vital for delivering it."

The logic is sound, the decision was sensible and the arrangement should prove a win for the mine developers, national economy, and local and guest workers.

Yet the government has contrived to turn this decision into a political own goal, which now has revived the ugly strains of 1990s Hansonism. Australian Workers Union boss and ALP national executive member Paul Howes said the deal helped the mining magnates that Labor was supposed to be attacking and ALP senator Doug Cameron led the xenophobic charge. "I just think that in the week where Australian workers are being marched off the job in Kurri Kurri and Tullamarine," he said, "that we're marching Chinese workers on to Roy Hill -- it just defies logic to me."

Other union leaders, Labor MPs and independent MPs have echoed these sentiments, descending into the sort of anti-foreign worker rhetoric we thought the labour movement had outgrown. This is disappointing, retrograde and could damage the national consensus that has developed around our immigration program.

Julia Gillard should have been able to condemn this reaction. But, rather, it was she who had encouraged it by expressing her anger about the EMA decision, behind closed doors to union leaders last week. So the Prime Minister has put herself in a humiliating and ambivalent position on this crucial national issue -- trying to give sustenance to the policy and, simultaneously, its critics.

This failure of leadership has resulted in an ALP caucus committee on EMAs to keep the executive in check. The independents have followed by forcing parliamentary committee scrutiny for EMAs. Potential investors, who have been encouraged by the EMA policy as a way to address skills shortages and provide bankability, must now consider added layers of red tape, administrative uncertainty and political doubt before committing to major projects.

Given the government's need for traction, a wise Prime Minister would have seized this announcement herself and revealed it at a media event in the Pilbara, with fully briefed union leaders, a premier and the world's richest woman by her side to add their endorsements. This way, Ms Gillard would have shown national leadership and demonstrated to the country that she had faith in our workers, our investors, our immigration program and our economic future.

Instead she has rankled her union backers, sown division in her ranks, unleashed populist independents, triggered a debate against foreign workers, complicated the process and created doubts in the business community.

In a perverse reversal of the alchemy of the mining industry, Ms Gillard has taken policy gold and turned it into dirt.


Chancellor slams Australia's university fee system as 'communist'

AUSTRALIA'S higher education system is akin to communism, one of the country's leading academics said yesterday.

Monash University chancellor Alan Finkel told the National Press Club the "centralised" system, in which the federal government sets course fees, was hampering Australia's research and innovation promise.

"What's happened in the last few years is they've freed up student demand so we've gone from a controlled sector … [that sets student numbers] but they've maintained central control, what I like to think of as a communist system in terms of how the universities are controlled from the federal government, which means we can't set fees," Dr Finkel said.
Advertisement: Story continues below

"And if you can't set fees you can't increase the fees in order to have more money to invest in higher quality.

"So we need to allow diversification across the sector in terms of quality of research, quality of education."

Dr Finkel's comments come as Times Higher Education magazine published its inaugural "100 under 50" list.

The list is designed to showcase the "best" global universities aged 50 years or less. Australia performed strongly on the list, with 14 universities in the top 100.

Editor Phil Baty said the list was "brilliant news". "Only the UK has more representatives in the top 100 list than Australia, which beats the US, France, Germany and Canada," he said.

Australia's entries include Macquarie University and the University of Wollongong (tied at 33), and the Queensland University of Technology (40).


Another 1000 jobs cut from South Australian public sector

A FURTHER 1000 public sector jobs will be lost over the next three years.  The cuts - across all departments and agencies - are in addition to the 4100 public service job losses announced in last year's State Budget.

The latest cuts are expected to save the Government up to $160 million over the three years.

The Government aims to shed the jobs through a combination of targeted separation packages and natural attrition, but the move has sparked a storm of protest from public sector unions.

Public Service Association general secretary Jan McMahon warned that SA families would pay the price for job cuts.

Ms McMahon said the cuts would affect "real services" including social workers, youth workers and park rangers.  "We can't continue to lose the skills and capabilities and resources that are needed to deliver services to ordinary South Australian families and that's not to mention the loss of investment," she said.

"The public sector is not some faceless conglomerate, it's a critical cog in the wheel of our society.  "If it can no longer effectively deliver the services it is responsible, for then all South Australians will feel the pain."

Unions are already campaigning against previous job cuts they consider to be an assault on their members.

Treasurer Jack Snelling said he was doing everything in his power to ensure frontline services were not affected.

"Savings measures are needed to reduce the size of the Government, reducing the pressure on the state's finances while creating a leaner government," he said.  "Any full-time equivalent reductions will result from a mix of targeted separation packages and natural attrition and have been allocated across government agencies."

Treasury anticipates the separation packages will cost about $60 million, reducing the savings.

Business leaders and the Opposition have been highly critical of public service numbers in recent months.  The Motor Trade Association and Business SA called for widespread job cuts in their pre-Budget submissions.

Yesterday, the Australian Industry Group released its pre-Budget submission, calling on the Government to ensure the number of SA public sector employees, as a percentage of total employees, was the equivalent of the average of the other mainland states, and to deliver on its promise last year to reduce the public sector by 4100 jobs.

On June 1 last year, there were 84,882 full-time public sector employees, making up 12.6 per cent of the state's workforce. The numbers were as low as 66,933 in 2002.

The Advertiser reported in December last year that SA's public sector had grown by almost a quarter in the past decade, adding $1.3 billion to the Budget bottom line.

Less than a month later, the Government admitted the exact number of public servants was unknown because the last official report on workers was more than 12 months old.  The public service wages bill is predicted to grow from $6.6 billion in the current financial year to more than $7 billion in 2014-15.  Superannuation expenses will add another $400 million a year to that bill.

In its pre-Budget submission, MTA chief executive John Chapman said the Government needed more commitment to reducing public sector workforce numbers than it had shown to date.

After her recent re-election, PSA general secretary Jan McMahon said she would make the fight against public service cutbacks a priority.


No comments: