Despite recent Australian politics being dominated by spin and mud-slinging, big things are at stake in Election 2013.

The Liberal Party discussion paper advocating the development of northern Australia merits more scrutiny than it received last week. This is a big idea, some of which is promising, but a lot of which is highly concerning.

In a nutshell, the idea hinges on the development of northern Australia to give business, workers and their families the incentive to move to these sparsely populated areas.

To spur on business investment, northern Australia would be lightly regulated with low tax rates, fast-track approvals of permits for construction and expanded use of low-skilled foreign workers. Supporting this proposal is Gina Rinehart's powerful lobby group Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision (ANDEV).

The central premise of the scheme is that northern Australia would be freed from the shackles of government regulation. Herein lies the challenge for the Liberal Party: in creating this deregulatory pro-investment nirvana, how do you avoid the rampant bullying, unsafe workplaces, cramped living spaces and, on a few occasions, deaths, that occurred the last time Australia allowed in semi and low-skilled foreign workers on a lightly controlled 457 visa?

During the Howard government years, the 457 visa scheme was expanded and deregulated, allowing an influx of low and semi-skilled migrant workers. Stories abounded of serious instances of exploitation: an Indian chef unable to speak English worked 14 hours a day for 40 consecutive days without being paid. In another case, four Chinese workers who spoke little English were found to have been underpaid $93,667. In another case two workers were forced to continue working after breaking bones in their arms doing work they were unqualified to do.

In many other cases low and semi-skilled workers on 457 visas had ''rent money'' docked from their wages to pay for overcrowded and underserviced company housing.

These abuses and many more were uncovered by the Deegan Review, which led to the Labor government passing a series of legislative reforms to improve the integrity of Australia's foreign worker program.

The problem for the Liberal Party and their ANDEV pals is how to design a deregulatory oasis in northern Australia without it descending into a guest-worker ghetto. Our recent history has shown us that low and semi-skilled migrant workers aren't in a position to bargain for wages and entitlements. Their vulnerability is compounded by their need for an employer to sponsor their continued residence in Australia.

So a visa scheme that attracts low and semi-skilled workers cannot be lightly regulated. History has shown there need to be inbuilt safeguards to protect these workers from exploitative treatment. Such a scheme cannot be designed purely with business in mind, because reducing red tape will benefit business but enable exploitative workplaces to proliferate.

Faced with this quandary, some would argue against low-skilled guest-worker schemes altogether. American political philosopher Michael Walzer regards anything short of permanent migration as morally unacceptable and as the ethical equivalent of a ''family with live-in servants''.

Nonetheless, low-skilled guest-worker schemes can work. For example, the Pacific Seasonal Worker Scheme has been effectively designed and piloted to prevent a broad spectrum of undesirable labour practices. But regulation is essential to ensure workers receive adequate rates of pay and appropriate living and working conditions.

Low and semi-skilled migrant workers need to be made aware of their workplace rights and whom they should contact in the event of safety problems at work.

Resources must also be allocated to government agencies monitoring workplaces and enforcing labour standards. Measures such as these can enable business to manage skill shortages without workers becoming victims.

So yes, let's consider developing northern Australia. Indeed, kudos to the Liberal Party and ANDEV for proposing that we do. But if we consider this idea, let's do it right and with informed debate: especially on the deregulatory thesis underpinning it.

Dr Joanna Howe is a lecturer at the University of Adelaide Law School.

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