Maladministration: ChAFTA and the Turnbull Government

On 21 October 2015, Andrew Robb and Peter Dutton released a joint media statement detailing the Turnbull Government’s negotiations with the Labor Party to pass the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. After the Prime Minister referenced the ‘ghosts of White Australia’ and the CFMEU ran an effective anti-ChAFTA campaign, there was bitterness aplenty in Canberra leading up to the Senate vote.


That day, Robb and Dutton committed the Turnbull Government to the following:

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) will include in its annual report details about the number of work agreements signed, including the number of 457 visa holders engaged under the agreements, together with occupations and industries in which they are engaged. This will ensure programme transparency.

They also committed the Turnbull Government to undertake a review of the Temporary Skilled Migrant Income Threshold, more commonly known by the snappy acronym TSMIT:

As recommended by the recent Independent Review of the Integrity of the Subclass 457 Programme, the Government will undertake an evidence-based review of the TSMIT (Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold).  This review was scheduled to commence by the end of 2015, but has been brought forward as part of the agreement with Labor.

That was 17 months ago.

A quick search of the DIBP annual report for 2015-16 does not turn up the words “Work agreement” or “Investment Facilitation Agreement” (the new ChAFTA provision). “457 visas” are mentioned fleetingly but not in relation to ChAFTA or work agreements. Flipping through each relevant section, I couldn’t find any reference to the number of work agreements signed, nor the industries or occupations which they are engaged in.

On the TSMIT, the Department engaged John Azarias, who was previously the head of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration. He submitted his report in May 2016 and it was released nine months later on 24 February 2017. Azarias recommended the salary threshold – $53,900 – be indexed from 1 July 2016 according to the Wage Price Index. This did not occur before, during or after the election despite Mr Azarias noting it would be “timely” to index the salary threshold given it had not been done since July 2013.

So in the aftermath of churlish ChAFTA negotiations where hard fought concessions were agreed by both major parties, nothing has changed. Information ensuring “programme transparency” has not been published while indexing the wages at the bottom of the 457 visa program has stalled despite an explicit recommendation to raise them.

With anti-immigration sentiment threatening to break down the door, the Turnbull Government is willing to make promises it does not keep. Peter Dutton gets a dixer nearly every Question Time on 457 visas and he proceeds to squawk about protecting Australian jobs. In reality, his rhetoric cannot hide his and his Department’s inability to be across basic public administration. He has overseen the deterioration of the salary threshold relative to Australian wages.

The Turnbull Government has a responsibility to keep the promises they make. Trade agreements are a red rag to a bull in the very seats the government is trying to fight in at the moment. In the aftermath of the most contentious bilateral trade agreement ever signed, the complete lack of follow through belies any tough talk or ability to connect with the electorate.

In September 2015, I wrote the following:

As is playing out in Donald Trump’s push for the Presidency and the far-right in Europe, nationalism on immigration creates the conditions for autarky. Closing the borders, capping migration numbers and squeezing the rights of migrants already in societies. In OECD countries, this will stymie economies and contribute to demographic nightmares.

Pauline Hanson and One Nation now provide a platform for jingoism and nationalism on Australian immigration. This platform is currently blown out of proportion by the media. But the key point is Hanson doesn’t need any assistance in the form of maladministration by the Turnbull Government on the very same issues renewing Australian populism.

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