Heat on Howard over work visas
By Cynthia Banham
Oct 26, 2005
Pacific Island leaders took a swipe at the Federal Government yesterday over its refusal to grant their citizens seasonal worker rights, but vowed to continue the fight for Australia to change its policy.
As the Prime Minister, John Howard, wrapped up a three-day sojourn in Papua New Guinea where he has been attending the Pacific Islands Forum, the prime ministers of Fiji and Samoa, plus PNG's Foreign Minister, all expressed disappointment at the Government's decision to reject their proposal for a guest worker scheme, with the latter, Sir Rabbie Namaliu, calling Australia "weak and ill-informed".
It was an awkward day for Mr Howard, who breached fashion protocol when he was the only leader to turn up to a plenary session wearing the polo shirt from the previous day's retreat in the resort province of Medang, while all his counterparts wore business attire.
Mr Howard left the room 20 minutes into the session and returned nearly an hour later in a shirt and tie.
The Foreign Minister of East Timor, a forum observer, Jose Ramos Horta, joked in his address during Mr Howard's absence that the Prime Minister must have left the room because he was "embarrassed I'd talk so highly of him".
But an even more awkward moment came when Tuvalu's Prime Minister, Maatia Toafa, at the end of the session tried to raise the topic of labour mobility, forcing Mr Howard to once again lay out Australia's reasons for refusing to allow short-term working visa rights for Pacific Islanders. Australia is concerned a guest worker program would lead to visa over-stayers.
The issue of seasonal workers has dominated the forum this week, with a communique signed by the 16 participating nations' leaders noting they agreed on the need to "continue to consider the issue of labour mobility in the context of member countries' immigration policies".
Fiji's Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, told the Herald he was "really disappointed" and "so are my colleagues" with Australia's refusal to agree to a guest worker scheme but said Australia and New Zealand were "leaving the door open for further discussion".
"We have been putting forward this proposal for a number of years now and the reaction was quite negative yesterday," Mr Qarase said.
"We are quite disappointed and concerned because we know that Australia requires seasonal labour and we also know that Australia and New Zealand employ visitors without any work permit."
He said the proposal put forward by Pacific Islands leaders would put a scheme in place with criteria, regulations and rules and a monitoring control system which would minimise abuse of the system.
Samoa's Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, said he did not think labour mobility was a "closed issue".
"What is important is that it was raised, it was discussed, many many things don't occur the first discussion," he said.
But the harshest comments came from Sir Rabbie, who accused Australia of hypocrisy because it allowed in thousands of backpackers from Europe and North America on working holiday visas every year.
"There is one law for young Europeans and Americans and a different one for young Pacific Islanders," he told a PNG newspaper.
But Mr Howard said Sir Rabbie had misunderstood Australia's immigration program.
"Backpackers only come to Australia once, whereas the seasonal worker concept involves people coming and going on a regular basis, so he's not comparing apples with apples," he said.
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