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.