Reject Keneally’s dog whistle politics on migrant workers

Migrant workers protest against being underpaid.

While the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is pressuring the federal government to expand JobKeeper to cover the 1 million migrant workers currently left out, Labor’s immigration spokesperson Kristina Keneally has come out swinging — against those same workers.

In a Fairfax opinion piece on May 3, Keneally argued the COVID-19-generated recession means we need to “put Australian workers first”.

“The post-COVID-19 question we must ask now is this: when we restart our migration program, do we want migrants to return to Australia in the same numbers and in the same composition as before the crisis?

“Our answer should be no.”

The context is ripe for more dog whistle politics: Australia’s unemployment rate is already beyond 10%, with 1.3 million people now out of work, according to Department of Social Services figures.

A slice of Labor’s base has already been suckered by far-right Senator Pauline Hanson and it is no wonder she accused Keneally of stealing her policy. You would think Labor politicians would have twigged that such dog whistling will only send more of its base to the far right.

Is Keneally just trying to promote responsible permanent visas, as some have argued in her defence, or protesting against leaving migrant workers on temporary visas to be exploited by unscrupulous bosses?

That would be a generous misreading of her calculated intervention.

Keneally summed up her argument in a nutshell, tweeting that migration is an “economic policy lever” that can “help or harm Australian workers” and that, post-COVID-19, “Australians should get a fair go & a first go at jobs”.

Keneally believes “business, unions and government” must “identify coming skill shortages” and “deliver training and reskilling opportunities to Australian workers”.

Why not instead argue for more training and a faster citizenship process for migrant workers who want to stay? Or for Australia to be more generous right now — when 1 million people urgently need help?

It is true migrant workers on temporary visas are exploited by bosses, with the support of the Australian state. It is also true that having a group of super-exploited workers helps keep downward pressure on wages.

But these two problems can be mitigated by laws that give migrants more rights and protections, and more training and more security.

We also need laws that make it illegal for employers to pay migrant workers less than Australian citizens doing the same job. These are basic measures that any party that purports to represent workers would support.

But Keneally is travelling on a diametrically different road. She has form: as NSW premier, she presided over a suite of privatisations and cuts, against union opposition. Now she wants to prove Labor can beat the Coalition at its own game: using racism to divide and rule.

Any post-COVID-19 recovery has to include migration policies that are not skewed in favour of skill sets, but governed by people’s needs.

Specifically, Australia needs to end the practice of immigration departments constantly rejecting visitor visa applications from Third World countries. It also needs to end its barbaric practice of detaining refugees seeking asylum.

Keneally has come in for some sharp rebukes on Twitter for running the right-wing populist and racist “fortress Australia” line. But, disappointingly, ACTU secretary Sally McManus approvingly retweeted her piece.

McManus should know better. Racist dog whistle politics is toxic and divisive in the workers’ movement.

“Workers of the world unite”, the traditional May Day salute, is at the heart of the Green Left project. We reject the divide-and-rule tactics of the billionaire class and campaign for a movement of working and unemployed people who reject nationalist racism and jingoism.

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