On a hiding to tweet nothing over mining jobs
You know you’re in strife as a political leader when you must rely on the almost uniformly vacuous medium of Twitter to demonstrate that your leadership is safe. Yet so it was with Julia Gillard, who said she was satisfied with government whip Joel Fitzgibbon’s declaration (in 140 characters or less) that she had his support.
“I thank my colleagues for the publicity but no one does more to support the PM and the government than me!” Fitzgibbon wrote from his Twitter handle @fitzhunter to quell suggestions he was canvassing alternate leaders. It was schoolyard stuff – “hey JG we are still cool and UR awesome J Fitz xoxo” – made more so by the addition of a chirpy exclamation mark.
Setting the specifics of Julia Gillard’s leadership aside, the broader problem for the Government is that this latest flare-up goes to the one thing which threatens to kill it dead. And that is the perception that it is too busy focussing on its own survival to concentrate fully on issues which affect the day to day lives of Australians.
The question of allowing foreign guest workers to take up employment in Australia’s mines is the kind of issue which would always energise the minds of many voters. Not necessarily for the most noble of reasons. There is a whiff of jingoism to the debate, harking back as it does to a time when a magazine such as The Bulletin carried “Australia for the white man” under its masthead, when we railed against the use of islanders on the cane fields.
The reality is somewhat different in a globalised economy, and a country where unemployment is at historic lows. Many Australian workers are reluctant to move to take up employment in remote parts of the country, whatever the financial incentives may be.
Setting aside the jingoistic component to this debate, Australians still have every right to have a mature discussion about whether we should be importing people from other countries to do work which Australians could do. Similar debates take place in other countries. Indeed there are plenty of places which totally ban foreigners from working there at all, so we should not beat up on ourselves too much.
The problem the Government has it that it could and should have managed this debate but has instead made a hash of it because of the fragility of both its grip on power and the prime minister’s grip on the leadership.
Labor MPs were yesterday scratching their heads trying to work out how a policy which the government had actually signed off on a long time ago had transformed into (another) flashpoint for the survival of the government and the prime minister.
The use of the so-called Enterprise Migration Agreements to let foreign workers fill gaps in industries suffering labour shortages was approved last year and referred to in Treasurer Wayne Swan’s Budget speech. This is why the Prime Minister’s apparent confusion about when she did or didn’t know about it is so odd, and can only be seen as an indication of just how chaotic things have become as she tries to keep the show on the road.
The unions – some of them – need to be taken to task too about their hysterical reaction to the proposal. As Michael Pascoe revealed on Fairfax websites yesterday, a fact sheet was actually circulated at this month’s ACTU Congress spelling out not just how the Enterprise Migration Agreements would work, but also outlining the specifics of the actual arrangement involving Labor’s bete noir, the world’s richest woman mining billionaire Gina Rinehart.
“The first proposed EMA is for the Roy Hill project in WA,” it read. “The proposal is for around 1500 visa positions over the three year life of the project, with the majority of these visas being sought in semi-skilled occupations.”
Oops. Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes was at the ACTU Congress but clearly didn’t read it. Either that or he was engaging in a bit of wilfully ignorant tub-thumping on behalf of his membership – or possibly on behalf of his closest mate in politics, Labor leadership aspirant Bill Shorten.
The depressing thing about all this is that some of what Howes said in his criticisms of the EMA made sense, or at least gave voice to the concerns Australians would have about their use, but was lost in the fog of everything else.
Setting aside what I said above about the realities of globalisation and the low levels of unemployment, when Australia is struggling with the contradictory demands of a booming mining sector and a contracting manufacturing sector, it should be incumbent on the Government to ensure that any displaced worker is given the chance of getting a foot in the door should new vacancies emerge in a different industry. It is right and fair that Australian workers should be given preference ahead of foreign workers, as long as the process is not so drawn out that big employers lose their commercial advantage. Julia Gillard would counter that this is what she has done with the insertion of such a provision. But the process which got her there was such a shambles that it’s unlikely to have won her any plaudits from a hostile electorate.
To finish where I began, with social media – if you cast your mind back to 2009 it was Julia Gillard who had great sport with Joe Hockey when he embarrassingly used social media to gauge public support for a carbon tax ahead of the Liberal leadership spill.
“He can’t govern the nation by tweet,” Ms Gillard said.
“People don’t expect their politicians to just text out a message - imagine, you know, `What do you think the defence budget should be?’ And apparently a whole lot of tweets come back and you accept that. That’s not leadership.”
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