Shallow diving into the sleaze pit

Australia is deep into a national election campaign that threatens to change the character of this country – and our place in the world – for generations. It is a sickening slide into racism masquerading as a form of economic nationalism.

The core of the issue is, essentially, Australia’s mining boom with the associated demand for massive new infrastructure such as ports and rail lines. It is inextricable from the reality that Australia is a vast continental land mass with a miniscule population, in global terms, of a mere 22 million.

As a sophisticated, mixed economy that ranks just outside the top ten internationally, our need for skilled workers is very substantial. Despite an equally sophisticated education system we are not producing sufficient numbers of professionals able to satisfy the demand. Perhaps more to the point, our living standards are so comfortable that we are unable to ‘produce’ sufficient numbers of skilled workers willing to accept the rigours of living in remote and frequently harsh regions even for very handsome remuneration.

So, we enabled a system in which skilled migrants can come to Australia to fill these roles and help build the nation. It worked quite well while there was bipartisan political agreement among the major parties that this was in the national interest. But now, a dangerous element has slithered into the mix.

The union movement is leading the charge. Sadly, it is doing so as a last ditch effort to salvage its affiliated Labor Party government that has nose-dived in popularity over the past few years and which seems destined for an electoral rout of historic proportions at the poll in September.

The unions are frantic that their capitalist class enemies will resume office and, again, reform the workplace in favour of employers. With the prospect that their only hope of a favourable government will perhaps be sidelined for a decade, some union leaders have decided this is the time to throw caution to the wind and use any issue that might salvage something from the impending wreckage. Skilled migrants are their stalking horse.

The Vice-President of the Australian Labor Party and national leader of the Transport Workers’ Union, Tony Sheldon, has just accused some employers of these skilled migrants of “human trafficking” and engaging in a “form of slavery”. There could hardly be a more explosive accusation.

With the blindness of the true bigot, Sheldon blithely ignores the fact that the rate of skilled migration has leapt to record levels under his own government. But our national leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who routinely roils in the pits of polling popularity is determined to enhance her reputation even further (if only in her own fevered mind). She baldly says Australian workers should go to the front of the queue with foreigners to the rear.

Makes you proud to be Aussie, doesn’t it?

Ignoring the reality that our own people won’t accept these jobs – which is why they are available even with massive pay packages – she accuses employers of exploiting these willing visitors to our country. The same people who in waves over previous generations have proved to be nation-builders and, now, as dinky-di Aussies as any of us.

This same Prime Minister not long back unveiled with tremendous fanfare, a supposed vision of how we would engage with our Asia-Pacific region and be a shining light to all those other nations not fortunate enough to be us. Now she denigrates their willing workers as beneath contempt for stealing local jobs. Does she really believe her own xenophobic messages are not heard by our neighbours?

This is a shameful debate and one which is tarnishing our image and reputation across the region. It is a dangerous debate because it unleashes the basest of motives: envy, greed and fear of difference.

Yet, as a democracy, we must not stifle it. The only way for decent Australians to signal their disgust at this tawdry attempt to retain office is to vote the proponents down so resolutely they realise just how offensive the silent majority feels this to be.

You cannot shallow dive into a lseaze pit and come up clean.