The statistics behind 457 visa rort claims

By Andrew Collins
Wednesday, 29 May, 2013

In this age of politics, where policy is so heavily influenced by focus groups, the truth presented to the public can be compromised.

Policies are often not representative of ideology. Instead they are chess pieces that politicians manoeuvre around the board, based on how many percentage points they may win in a marginal constituency, or how they may help a politician’s position against an opposing party, or even someone within their own party.

IT is not exempt from these manipulations, and we often see technology decisions that affect our businesses - and us as private citizens - being made on the basis of how they may help those in parliament.

Australia is sliding inexorably towards its September Federal election, and things in Canberra are looking messy - and increasingly farcical. In recent times we’ve witnessed failed no confidence votes, leadership spills without challengers and continued cabinet bloodletting.

In between these dramas, we’ve also seen both major parties try to exploit IT-related issues to gain public favour.

In March, the spotlight fell on 457 visas - the documents that allow foreign citizens to stay in Australia temporarily for work. The federal Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor, claimed that growth of 457 visas had caused a drop in Australian IT salaries.

The claim was part of a broader assertion by O’Connor that Australian businesses, across several industries, are using the 457 visa program as their first option to fill positions. He said that over the last several years, the number of 457 applications has been growing faster than the country’s total employment rate.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard also chimed in, saying she was concerned that employers were abusing the 457 program and that Australian workers were missing out on jobs.

Regarding the IT sector, O’Connor claimed that:

a) the IT sector was “probably the sector that receives most of the 457s”, and that

b) over “several years” wages have fallen “between five and 12% in those positions that are held by 457 applicants” in the IT industry, causing “an adverse impact on jobs in that sector held by local workers”.

The first of these claims contradicts official statistics from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Between 1 July 2012 and 31 January 2013, 3990 457 visas were granted in the ‘Information Media and Telecommunications’ category, placing it in fourth place out of 20 categories, behind Construction (5060), Health Care and Social Assistance (4980) and ‘Other Services’ (4780).

With those 3990 visas, Information Media and Telecommunications accounted for 9.6% of all 457 visas granted this financial year, and 11% last financial year - a far cry from “most”.

Looking further back, the Information Media and Telecommunications category placed fourth every financial year back to ’09-’10, where it was second. In ’08-’09 it placed sixth and in ’07-’08 it placed fifth.

Perhaps the Minister was just being selective with his statistics and his crime is simply not giving context. The numbers vary by state, and in NSW, the Information Media and Telecommunications category has indeed been granted the most 457 visas in the current financial year.

But in every other state and territory, it ranked lower (3rd in Vic and 5th in Tas; between 8th and 13th in the other five).

Being picky with statistics in such a manner is supremely bad practice: you can establish anything as ‘fact’ if you ignore the available evidence based on your whims. It’s worrying if a federal Minister is presenting a fact about one state as though it represents all of them.

Maybe he just wasn’t correctly briefed by his team and the information he had on hand was flawed. I would argue that as government representative of a particular portfolio, he has a responsibility to check his own facts before he comments publicly. In that position of authority, his word informs debate, and debate is useless if its assumptions are wrong. Blurting out falsities - even if done innocently - is still spreading misinformation.

There’s also the possibility O’Connor flat out lied. But I’m ruling that one out - politicians would never intentionally deceive the people they represent, right?

(I am assuming that ‘Information Media and Telecommunications’ is the best analogue for IT in the 457 visa categories. The next closest match is ‘Professional Scientific and Technical’, which comes in at 6th place with 8.3% of all 457s in the current financial year so far, 6th last financial year, 8th in ’10-’11 and 11th in ’09-’10. However you spin it, IT is not the lead industry for 457 visas, according to the Department of Immigration. If O’Connor has some magical stats that would prove his points, he should reveal them.)

As for the comments about salaries: O’Connor’s claim of an “adverse impact” at some point in the last “several years” is pretty nebulous. Since he hasn’t specified what form these supposed effects took, or when they occurred, it’s impossible to ascertain whether his claim has merit. If he wants the public to believe him, he needs to be specific, and his claims must be verifiable.

Of course, the federal opposition is just as guilty of throwing IT into their spin machine and cranking the handle. Tony Abbott managed to tie the discussion to the at-best tangentially related issue of asylum seekers, saying: “This is a Prime Minister who can’t stop the boats, so what’s she doing? She wants to stop the brains from coming to Australia.”

Now, I’m not saying that employers aren’t exploiting 457 visas. That could well be the case. I’m simply pointing out that, thanks to their own antics, politicians are making it hard for anyone to trust them when it comes to these matters.

Also, this column may seem pedantic. But I believe we must hold those that claim to represent us to the highest standards, particularly when they’re developing policies that affect us.

Often in politics, spin comes before sense and fact. Keep that in mind the next time a pollie opens their mouth and mentions IT.


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