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Political Prop: The 457 Visa

So why, after almost no media attention, has the 457 visa abuse become such a hot topic amongst politicians, and the media who write about them?

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If you hadn’t heard of “457 visas” prior to this month you can rest assured that you are not alone. Until now, it was considered to be one of the more successful and therefore less infamous areas of Australian immigration policy, that is, until earlier this month when Prime Minister Gillard denounced the widespread rorting of the 457 visa and provided the scheme with some political spotlight. 

It was in western Sydney earlier this month, where the Prime Minister spoke of the disgust she felt toward Australian employers rorting the system by providing foreign workers with jobs that could easily be filled by Australians. There were also reports of abuse of vulnerable workers once they arrived by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who released media statements describing the conditions of some foreign workers on the 457 scheme as “tantamount to slavery”. 

457 visas are those issued by Australian businesses, to foreign workers in order for them to bring specialist skills from overseas into Australia, when they cannot be sourced locally. At any one time, there are around 100 000 people in Australia on 457 visas, they are considered to be relatively uncontroversial (even one of Julia Gillard’s own staff members is employed on one). In her speech however, the uglier side of the system was brought to our attention, and along with it, a glimpse of the uglier side of politics. The 457 visa system, the Prime Minister declared, was “out of control”. And the biggest losers she emphasized, were Australian workers in the “job queue”.

So why, after almost no media attention, has the 457 visa abuse become such a hot topic amongst politicians and the media who write about them? It is by all accounts a fairly niche issue, and the opposition was quick to accuse the government of xenophobia. For starters, the fact that the speech took place in Western Sydney is indicative of the very pivotal role campaigning plays in this issue. The votes in Western Sydney are enough to lose the Labor Party government in the upcoming election, and their prospects there are not looking good. The area reportedly has an unemployment level twice that of the rest of Australia, and their votes are vital. 

By positioning the 457 rorting as one predominant cause of Australian unemployment, the Labor party tactically and deliberately associated a very significant issue for Western Sydney voters, with the very explosive topic of immigration policy in Australia. The “jobs queue” to which Gillard referred in her speech strongly echoed the “queue-jumper” term often used to describe asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat by right wing politicians. Her use of the language was closely associated with the asylum seeker debate, one that divides opinion dramatically, and on which Gillard is keen to appear “strong”.  

The ACTU release detailed the way foreign workers were being abused by Australian employers. Often because of language barriers, and because workers who arrive in Australia on work visas face the tenuous situation of being at the behest of those who employ them, and enjoy less protections because of the necessity of keeping their jobs. They rightly declared this to be deplorable behaviour by a select few employers. But the overwhelming focus by Labor and Prime Minister Gillard has been on the fact that, more importantly it seems, Australian jobs were being filled by these foreigners when they didn’t need to be. 

If unemployment was truly the issue, are the relatively few employers who rort the 457 system really where the government should concentrate their disapproval? It seems like a fairly left of field solution to a more general economic problem in Australia. Those who rort the 457 system should face consequences for doing so, better policing of the 457 system is vital for the protection of foreign workers and Australian workers alike. But how effective is it as a strategy for combatting unemployment? The demonising of foreign workers speaks of other, more deplorable motives.

If the Prime Minister denounces the way Australian employers have taken advantage of some vulnerable members of our society in the same way that she has their rorting of the 457 system, and if she questions why such employers feel like they can commit these abuses with impunity: she need look no further than the xenophobic and charged language her own party uses to pander to the very worst qualities in Australian voters. 

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Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back

The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?

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To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it. 

Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.) 

On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what. 

The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born. 

American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.

One is the Lousiest Number

These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level. 

The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.

But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.

The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.) 

As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”

A Way Out and Up

All is not lost, though. There is hope.

While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.

Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.

The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.

And then, we can mobilize. 

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Ramsay and the Rabble: Miseducation at the University of Queensland

Conservatives should not flee campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight.

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For good reason, controversies in higher education are usually of short-term and limited interest to the Australian public, which is undoubtedly much more intelligent than anyone at a typical humanities faculty meeting. Examples abound, but for a measure of proof, look to Dr. Dean Aszkielowicz of Murdoch University, who recently expressed a chirpy contempt for ANZAC soldiers, or, as he called them, murderers unworthy of commemoration. 

Fashionable whinging about a pervasive university rape crisis also comes to mind. The idea that Australian campuses are somehow comparable to the Congo or downtown Mogadishu cannot be believed by a thinking person, which is probably why it’s so popular among feminists of the young and mulish variety.

Such examples of academic mischief dominate the headlines and then disappear. The ongoing debate over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, however, has proven to be an interesting exception.

Put simply, Paul Ramsay, the late businessman and philanthropist, left a sizeable bag of money for any Australian university that wanted it. The funds would go toward the establishment of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Western Civilisation, the hiring of academic staff, and generous scholarships.

The centerpiece is a Great Books program in which small groups of students would read and discuss the imperishable works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. This would provide students with a real liberal education – “the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it.

That all sounds great, I hear the thoughtful Reader agreeing, and yes, it does. Our universities have centers for the study of China, Islam, and the like; why not establish one devoted to our own intellectual and historical tradition? Ramsay’s goal of promotingan interest in and awareness of Western civilization” should strike any reasonable person as sound and modest.

Against all this must be set the utterly unhinged reaction from university staff and students.       Countless protests, op-eds, and social media denunciations have left the Ramsay Centre homeless and its millions of dollars unspent. To recap: the Australian National University flirted with the idea and then impolitely declined; the University of Wollongong said sure why not and is now facing legal action by the National Tertiary Education Union seeking to reverse the decision; the University of Sydney, led by the indefatigable Dr. Nick Riemer, is sure to reject the proposal. Riemer, who spends an incredible amount of time sniffing about Ramsay and organizing protest conferences, allegedly teaches students in the Linguistics department. He was the academic loon, you may recall, who argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Ramsay curriculum “validates the worldview” of the Christchurch terrorist who murdered innocent Muslims at prayer.

This brings me to the University of Queensland, where there is some interest in setting up Ramsay despite the fact that the humanities board has twice rejected the proposed curriculum. Of course, radical anti-Western zealots desire to be the cause of radical anti-Western zeal in others, so it’s no surprise that the lecturers have corrupted the students.

In an apparent nod to Athenian-style democracy, Student Union president Georgia Millroy organized a meeting in the Schonell theatre, where some five hundred students gathered to debate and vote on whether negotiations with Ramsay should continue, the Brisbane Times reported on May 29.

toads

It must be said that the young toads approached the task with a combination of demagoguery and smugness. With the lecture hall stacked, they loudly asserted their opposition, which was undoubtedly what Ms. Millroy hoped to achieve. Her comrade on the student council, Priya De, described the Ramsay Centre as “racist” without bothering to back up such a claim with evidence, and then she banged on for a bit about white supremacy. Other speakers of similarly limited vocabulary proceeded in a reliably platitudinous manner and added all sorts of nonsense to the Ramsay bill of complaint. In the end, only eight students voted in favor, and the Times should really do its journalistic duty and conduct a second headcount; those brave souls may have been sent off for reeducation.

This incident at UQ and similar ones elsewhere are not mere tussles in Australian higher education, soon to be forgotten. There is much more at risk. The failure to establish the Ramsay Centre would signal the success of “the culture of repudiation”, Roger Scruton’s term for Western culture’s masochistic hatred of itself and its inheritance. One must ask: is a considered appreciation of Western philosophy and history even permissible in its own home, the university? In Australia, the debate over Ramsay will help to settle this question.

For many conservatives, however, the debate is already over, and the losers are on the run. Roger Kimball, writing recently in the New York Post, argued that the Right should give up on trying to change the universities; such institutions are unsalvageable and new ones must be set up in their place. Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, recently made the same case in relation to the Ramsay Centre. 

This is a tempting path to take, especially for someone like me. I graduated in – good grief, when was it? – 2013, and since then I’ve undertaken the most intellectually liberating experience of my life: the gradual relinquishment of almost all the convictions I held as a university student. This has involved deep reading in a variety of sources, especially the Great Books, and a shuffle to the Right, well ahead of schedule.

That said, I don’t think conservatives should flee the campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight: first, surrendering to the likes of Georgia Millroy and her mob is intolerable to me; and second, I think a kind of victory is possible.

This may be surprising, but I sometimes notice a certain lack of resolve in the anti-Ramsay crowd, despite their vociferousness, and I wonder if their hearts are really in it. Perhaps, deep down, they might even enjoy losing this particular fight. 

How so? Well, the successful establishment of the Ramsay Centre would give many lecturers and their students their favorite thing of all: it would satisfy their desire to feel aggrieved all the time. They’d get quite a kick out of carrying on whinging about their victimhood and oppression. Imagine the safe spaces they’d have to build to protect themselves from those fellow students across campus, the ones who may have a shot at a decent and truly liberal education.

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