TONY ABBOTT will push for a major boost of skilled workers from overseas - ''the best possible immigrants to Australia'' - with a pledge to make employer-sponsored visas the mainstay of a Coalition government migration program.
Mr Abbott will use a speech in Melbourne today to the Institute of Public Affairs to accuse Labor of undermining public faith in Australia's migrant intake, and is expected to reaffirm his controversial promise to turn back asylum seeker boats when safe.
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But in outlining the Coalition's migration policy should it win office, he will argue the government has buckled to union concerns and made it more difficult for business to bring in overseas labor - with skilled workers on so-called 457 visas dwindling to barely 10 per cent of all new arrivals.
''These are the best possible immigrants to Australia,'' his speech notes say.
''They make a contribution from day one. From day one, they are immersed in the Australian way of life. They also help Australian businesses to make the most of their economic opportunities to build a prosperity which every Australian participates in.''
The 457 visa category allows employers to sponsor overseas workers to come to Australia for up to four years.
Mr Abbott describes the visa-type as one of the Howard government's ''most significant innovations'', with many of the temporary arrivals on 457 visas becoming eligible as permanent residents.
He will argue the migration program was strongest when the skilled component was almost 70 per cent.
''Under Howard, Australians were confident in a way they weren't before or since that the Australian government was in charge and that more or less everyone was pulling their weight,'' he says.
The 457 visa program was embroiled in controversy late in the Howard-era amid claims of a nationwide ''skills shortage'' after some overseas workers were found to be lowly paid and missing out on superannuation and medical expenses.
But Mr Abbott said provided such migrants were paid the same wages and that Australians could not readily fill these jobs, businesses should be able to bring in workers.
''A stronger economy is in everyone's interests; immigrants who contribute to a stronger economy improve the life of every Australian. Under a Coalition government, section 457 visas won't be just a component but a mainstay of our immigration program,'' Mr Abbott says.
''Provided immigrants are in relatively well-paid, skilled jobs that enable businesses to expand in ways that would not otherwise be possible, they are undeniably making our country stronger.''
Labor recently launched a plan to attract more US workers to Australia to meet labour shortages in the mining boom.
It will run an expo in Houston, Texas, in May to extol the benefits of working Down Under.
The Opposition Leader will argue in the year after Labor came into office, the skilled workers intake dropped to less than a quarter of the almost 300,000 migrants to Australia.
Meanwhile, a boat with 50 passengers and two crew was intercepted near Ashmore Island yesterday, nudging the number of asylum seeker boat arrivals this year to more than 2000.
Mr Abbott has maintained that a Coalition government will reinstate the Pacific solution abandoned by Labor, opening a detention centre on Nauru and introducing temporary protection visas.
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