SURPRISE! Foreign Minister Marise Payne didn't even hint at the possibility of a new visa scheme during her address to the State of the Pacific conference at the Australian National University earlier this week. Photo: Dan McGarry

As early as Tuesday next week, the Australian government may be announcing a visa scheme that could sideline Pacific labourers seeking work in Australia.

Vanuatu officials assured the Daily Post that they had neither been consulted nor informed of the plan.

Australia has always straggled behind New Zealand when it comes to seasonal worker schemes. New Zealand’s RSE came earlier, took more in, and was better regulated from the start.

But in recent years, it has made significant strides in expanding its regulatory capacity, growing worker numbers and making it easier for Vanuatu agents to support their contractors both at home and abroad.

Now, it’s looking like they’re willing to throw all that away.

For reasons known only to itself, the government of Australia is reportedly poised to institute a new agricultural visa scheme that could effectively kill the Seasonal Worker Programme and stunt the recently announced Pacific Labour Scheme.

Earlier this week, the Development Policy Centre published an article stating that a new agricultural visa scheme is on its way. The piece was authored by three of the foremost experts in the field of labour mobility.

In 2017, the article states, the National Farmers Federation submitted a recommendation for two new visa types. One would be for short-term, unskilled workers. This space is currently filled by the Seasonal Workers Programme. The second stream would be for longer-term skilled workers who would not be bound to a single employer.

“However, calls for a new visa category have either dismissed or ignored existing schemes that bring Pacific islanders and Timorese to Australia to work in regional areas.”

The SWP is “dismissed by the NFF on the grounds that it is ‘primarily a foreign aid program’, and due to its ‘lack of focus on the industry’s requirements’ (both strange accusations, given the size of the SWP is driven by employer demand, and given the scheme does not involve foreign aid).”

Development Policy Director Stephen Howes goes even further. In a separate statement, he writes, “It’s a bizarre situation, featuring politics detached from reality.”

Reaction in Vanuatu was sadly predictable. Officials confirmed they were neither consulted nor informed about the pending decision. Members of the Vanuatu public were characteristically fatalistic about Australia’s inability to see its Pacific trade partners as peers. One social media commenter said, “There we go again, yes or no, come or go, hot or cold, high or low, black or white. Vanuatu lives on”.

Regional sources told the Daily Post they could not see any evidence of anyone in the Pacific being consulted or informed.

Arguments that the Pacific can’t provide enough workers are specious, experts contend. The Development Policy Centre calculates that the region could conservatively provide nearly 600,000 workers every year. The most aggressive model estimates that the number could rise as far as 1.3 million if needed.

Vanuatu alone, they say, could provide anywhere from 14-32,000 annually. People familiar with the SWP process in Vanuatu suggested that the conservative figure was more accurate. John Salong is an employment agent who has long experience with the SWP. He said, “Unless you’re planning on taking every eligible person all at once, 15,000 is probably all we can do.”

An end to the SWP could have a greater impact now than at any other time. With nearly 12,000 people forced to flee from Ambae’s volcano, employment opportunities for unskilled labourers matter more now than ever.

The only timing considerations here appear to be Australian domestic politics. Howes believes that there is little actual need to upset the apple cart. “The prime motive for the Nationals seems to be to announce a ‘policy win’ to shore up its vote at the next election.”

Part of the motivation for this appears to be an ill-informed preference for Asian workers over Pacific ones. Howes: “Opening up agricultural visas to Asia would greatly disadvantage the Pacific and probably kill the other two schemes altogether.

“That would be a huge strategic own goal.”

The Scott Morrison administration appears unable to craft any coordinated—or comprehensible—engagement with the Pacific. First the PM decides to ignore the Pacific Islands Forum. Then, mere days after it signs onto a declaration describing climate change as the single greatest security threat we’re facing, he kills the National Energy Guarantee dead. Then newly-fledged foreign minister Maryse Paine manages to get through an entire speech on the state of the Pacific without once saying the words climate change.

As expected, Vanuatu was brought aboard the Pacific Labour Scheme only two weeks ago. Now, all of that is in jeopardy.

Only after Dame Meg Taylor pulled them up and warned that the Forum was moving on climate change whether Australia came along or not did Mr Morrison place hand on heart and pledge allegiance to his country’s Paris commitments—to Alan Jones of all people.

Now, out of the blue, and apparently without so much as a whisper to their Pacific counterparts, the government of Australia appears to be willing to undo years of slow development in order to get a quick and meaningless domestic policy win.

The DevPolicy article admit that “the NFF has made it clear that the SWP is too bureaucratic and inflexible.”

That may have been the case at the start. It’s fair to say that the SWP has experienced more teething pains than New Zealand’s RSE programme, for example. But things have changed a lot even since the NFF complained in 2017.

Right now, says John Salong, “if you know what you’re doing, you can get a visa application processed in about 24 hours.”

If nobody steps in to show a bit of sanity, the government of Australia appears ready to throw all that away. Former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop had a subtle and deep understanding of her brief. But Stephen Howes asks, “Will Marise Payne be strong enough to protect Australia’s national interests, and prevent this politically-driven policy madness?”

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