What a spectacle: the government hurling abuse at Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for touring regional Queensland to announce that a Labor government would tighten the foreign work-visa system, only to reveal it has spent the last two months working on tightening the same system.
Shorten, according to the government, is xenophobic and protectionist while, of course, the Coalition is not. One Nation, whose leader famously asked an interviewer when last in parliament to "please explain" what xenophobia meant, has claimed credit for Shorten's work-visa policy shift. Days earlier it claimed credit for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's policy of preventing asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island who are resettled in the United States from ever entering Australia. Shorten is neither xenophobic nor protectionist, just empathetic and politically smarter than Turnbull.
The 457-visa class is meant to operate like a tap; turn it on when skill shortages emerge in particular occupations and turn it off when they disappear. Incredibly the government has accused Shorten of hypocrisy for increasing 457 visas as employment minister. Yes he did – during Australia's biggest mining boom in 140 years. It is hardly xenophobic to argue for adjustments to the scheme when so many workers in regional Australia are out of work or underemployed. As the Turnbull government celebrates a national unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent, it might take a glance at its own employment department's labour market statistics, which reveal unemployment rates of up to 16 per cent in parts of Townsville, 17 per cent in Mackay and 21 per cent in Rockhampton – all former mining boom regional centres.
Turnbull's message to these voters during the 2016 federal election was that he wanted Australia to become an agile, innovative, "new economy". They interpreted this as meaning Queensland's "old economy" – mining and agriculture – belonged to a bygone era. Former mine construction workers and contractors can't see themselves wandering around in white coats with test tubes in Turnbull's big-city laboratories.
National Party operatives dumped Turnbull's central campaign material in favour of more empathetic and relevant grassroots campaigning. It saved the Coalition several Queensland regional seats but not the Townsville-based seat of Herbert. It wasn't enough to prevent the election of four One Nation senators.
Now Turnbull wants to double down on the elitism of which he accuses others, attacking Shorten for talking about Aussie jobs first and Buy Australia. When Hawke and Keating were opening up the Australian economy, they also promoted an Australian Made campaign. No one considered that protectionist or xenophobic.
If Shorten were performing a U-turn on tariffs, advocating the rebuilding of Fortress Australia erected by post-war Coalition governments, he would be rightly condemned for damaging the national interest. On November 8, shadow foreign minister and Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong delivered a brilliantly evocative speech titled "Building bridges not walls – the case for an open Australia", where she argued that the costs of Australia turning its back on the world included not only lower investment, fewer jobs and higher living costs, but risking our cherished values of decency and generosity.
The truth is both the Coalition and Labor support the open, competitive model. Neither is protectionist. But if One Nation is the only party willing to empathise with the construction workers and contractors and their families struggling to cope with the end of the mining boom, it will sweep through Queensland seats at the next state election and increase its representation in the next federal parliament. Then the elite commentators will accuse the Coalition and Labor of political ineptitude in vacating the political ground to the xenophobic, protectionist, bigoted One Nation Party.
As city-based Liberals deliver their message to regional Queenslanders that they are the winners from free trade, the Labor opposition is at least acknowledging their struggle. In rejecting One Nation policies of rebuilding tariff walls, the major parties should turn their attention to building productivity-raising infrastructure in regional Australia. As a tangible expression of empathy with the plight of struggling workers and contractors, it would boost the competitiveness of our regions while sustaining Australia's open economy.