The battle over special visas and mining taxes goes straight to the core of Australian identity, but it’s got nothing to do with race.
In the latest battle between the Gillard Government and the mining industry, industry chiefs likened the backlash against temporary visas to the White Australia policy.
Ironic perhaps given their spiritual (and in Gina Rinehart’s case biological) father Lang Hancock once referred to part Aboriginal people as “no-good half-castes” and said in a radio interview he would “dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.”
Next thing we know they’ll be saying they’re mining to reduce world poverty. The lavish series of films that the mining industry subjected Australians to last year with nauseating repetition certainly covered the ‘It’s un-Australian to not like mining’ angle.
Thankfully in this case there are signs that Australians aren’t chasing the red herring designed to guilt them into not asking for their economic share of Australia’s biggest boom.
In a speech to the Mining Industry Council in late May, Prime Minister Julia Gillard told miners that “you don’t own the minerals, I don’t own the minerals. Governments only sell you the right to mine the resource – a resource we hold in trust for a sovereign people. They own it and they deserve their share.”
The miners’ other favourite singalong of ‘don’t slay the golden goose’ is designed to scare, even though there is not one single example of a company that has cancelled a project in Australia due to high labour costs.
In the case of Gina Rinehart’s iron ore project, Roy Hill, few Australians doubt the value of the $9 billion dollar plus venture in Western Australia’s north which was granted permission on 25 May 2012 to employ 1715 foreign workers on controversial EMA 457 visas.
But when Ms Rinehart claims it is impossible to find workers, we can’t help be suspicious that what she really means is that she can’t find skilled workers at the rate she wishes to pay. Today Tonight, in a report titled the Mining Jobs Myth, interviewed people who couldn’t find jobs in mining after spending tens of thousands of dollars retraining.
It’s simply not good enough for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Ms Gillard to offer a guarantee to the Australian people that they will get first dibs at the job.
Even if this is an honest process, which very often it is not, they may not have the skills to do the job or the desire for the wage that will attract people from developing countries in the region.
By letting the mining industry sort out its own labour problems internally, a booming Australian mining sector short of labour might be forced to train workers and increase wages to a level that would entice labour from the capital cities to the mines.
This is surely a more desirable outcome for Australians suffering from unaffordable housing, increasing inequality and presently, massive job losses in manufacturing.
Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull said last week that the brain drain keeps him up at night and the announcement that Hancock Prospecting had been given the go ahead to import 1715 workers to build the Roy Hill iron ore project in the Pilbara should do nothing to allay his fears.
If we can’t start positioning our own people to take advantage of high skilled jobs during the biggest boom of our history, then when can we do it? Do we want to be part of a highly skilled and prosperous nation or a divided society that depends on cheap overseas labour like a heroin drip feed?
Bringing workers in on temporary visas will benefit Ms Rinehart, a woman whose personal wealth almost tripled last year from $10.3b billion to $29.17 billion, according to BRW. But what will the Australian public, the true owner of the resources earn? Another $600 cheque while true living costs continue to outstrip wage costs?
It will certainly be no respite for renters who find themselves stuck in a housing affordability crisis which has seen median house prices grow by 147 per cent while median after-tax incomes only increased 50 per cent, or workers who have just lost their jobs in manufacturing or indeed anyone who would like to retrain into a highly paid mining career.
Wage inflation is hardly Australia’s problem. As former Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser said in an interview with the 7.30 Report in April 2012,
“For a long time I’ve thought Australia could become something of a special country, a demonstration of a country that was competitive, fair and compassionate. And I’m afraid those hopes have been dashed a bit over the years.
“We’ve had 20 years of uninterrupted growth, solid, sustained growth for 20 years, and yet we’ve got more homelessness, distribution of income and wealth is more unequal now than it was 20 years ago,” he said.
Recruiting foreign workers at Roy Hill is a short-sighted and lazy move which will only hamper Australia’s ability to position itself as Asia’s knowledge economy.
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