Yet again we’re faced with an invidious choice: is the federal government especially stupid, or is it wilfully misleading an electorate that it regards as especially stupid?

I’m not sure which is worse, to be treated so cynically by the desperates attempting to cling to power, or to find the nation is in the hands of fools.

Brendan O’Connor was hard at it yesterday, doing one or the other, maybe both, in his thankless role of Immigration Minister. The portfolio is a hospital pass to begin with, but when also burdened with trying to justify the Prime Minister’s xenophobic slash at 457 visas, it looks more like a ticket to the political morgue. Here he was giving his very best shot on the ABC’s Insiders:

“I think the most significant evidence, Barrie, is that the fact is that the growth in visa applications, and the growth in 457s generally, over the last several years have far and away outstripped total employment growth. That’s the macro evidence.”

D’uh! Brendan, of course it has, as a sensible Immigration Minister would expect. By the nature of 457 temporary worker visas, they are meant to fill gaps that open up in the rapidly expanding parts of the economy. Sometimes that’s in places to which Australian residents who already have jobs don’t want to move, but the skills shortages are not limited by geography.

You wouldn’t expect the slower-growing or contracting bits of the Australian economy to require many guest workers to fill holes because shrinking or stagnant industries don’t have many. The growth in 457 visas is where the growth is, not in the overall labour market which has indeed being growing slowly – by just 1 per cent in the year to the end of January.

But maybe Brendan was being particularly simplistic, that he didn’t mean growth, as in percentages, but simple overall numbers. And in that case he would be more obviously wrong.

Taking his “several years” to mean seven, employment growth since January 2006 totals 1,519,300 – there are a few more than 11.5 million Australian residents in work. At the end of January, there were 105,330 primary 457 visa holders in Australia, up a strong 22 per cent on the same time last year, but still less than 1 per cent of the workforce and less than 7 per cent of the jobs growth. What’s more, the trend for new applications has been falling over the past three months.

As the word “temporary” suggests, 457 visas don’t last. (If you want to be pernickety, they don’t even exist – it’s actually a 457 “subvisa”, but we’ll let that pass.) Sometimes 457s are renewed, sometimes the worker leaves the country, sometimes they become permanent residents, taking one of the positions available in our overall migration program after effectively auditioning for it (and making no difference to our total migration numbers in the process). But that January peak is the total number of jobs “taken” in this economy.

And with a moment’s thought, if the minister wasn’t being simple or thinking the electorate is simple, there should come the realisation that the work done by 457 visa holders has allowed a great many other people to have jobs, the good ol’ multiplier effect.

To use a simple example (in case the minister or his political advisers read this), the second-biggest nominated occupation for granted applications in the first seven months of this financial year was cooks – 1690 of them. Without cooks you don’t have waiters, mine sites, armies that can march very far or a whole pile of other jobs. A more obvious example again is mining engineers – you need them to build mines which make much more employment possible. Without 457 visa jobs, there would be fewer jobs for everyone else.

And then there is the biggest single occupation granted 457s in the first seven months of this year: doctors. The system breaks them down into two categories, general medical practitioner (1020) and resident medical officer (720), jointly making 1720 docs – a number that is down by nearly 200 on this time last year. Apparently we need doctors to make all sorts of other things happen too, with most of the 457 sawbones employed by health departments around the nation.

But the labour market is more complex than that. For a start, Australia is getting a bargain by picking up people with education and skills we didn’t pay for and didn’t think of investing in. And when they’re no longer needed, they go elsewhere, not on the dole. Then there are the extra jobs generated by the extra demand our 105,330 primary 457 visa holders and any dependants create while they’re here. And, to take in the bigger picture, without the temporary workers providing a safety valve in several hot spots, we would have been more likely to have suffered inflationary pressures during the height of the resources construction boom that would mean higher interest rates than we’ve had and therefore lower economic growth with – you guessed it – fewer jobs.

That’s half an idea that Brendan O’Connor, the former union official, did nearly catch on to. Having talked rubbish in his opening effort on Insiders, he then made a bigger fool of himself by saying:

“Insofar as other evidence, as I say, we’re looking at the way in which it’s affecting wages. And what we found, for example, in the area of IT, which is probably the sector that receives most of the 457s, we’ve seen over several years now a fall in real wages between 5 and 12 per cent in those positions that are held by 457 applicants. The consequence of that, of course, is ultimately an effect – an adverse impact on jobs in that sector held by local workers.”

For a start, the minister is astoundingly wrong in claiming IT “receives most of the 457s” – maybe that’s a line his former colleagues in the Australian Services Union have been feeding him. And I do wonder who the “we” is that he refers to – it doesn’t sound like the skilled professionals within his department.

The “Information Media and Telecommunications” category with 3990 visas granted so far this year makes up less than a tenth of the total and is running in fourth place behind construction (5060), health care and social assistance (4980) and “other services” (4780). You get something as simple as that wrong, there’s a good chance you really don’t have a clue about your portfolio.

As to the bald assertion of falling real wages in the IT industry, I don’t know where it comes from and haven’t been able to Google up a source. It doesn’t seem to gel with the tone of the most recent industry salary survey I could find and, in any case, there are a great many factors impacting on the local IT industry right now aside from people working on 457 visas. What I do know is that a crucial driver in outsourcing IT work is the unavailability of skilled workers in Australia, not that it’s much cheaper, if at all, in the long run.

So, based on the quality of the rest of the minister’s claims, I see no reason to believe him on that until proven otherwise.

There is some little irony in O’Connor chiming in on Julia Gillard’s “Australians first, foreigners to the back of the queue” rant. Like Gillard, Tony Abbott and the other 26 per cent of us, O’Connor is a migrant, born in London of Irish parents. He was a union official here for nine years before taking Australian citizenship in 1995 – six years before being bumped up to parliament.

It’s beyond irony and well into farce that Gillard’s supposed communications expert, John McTernan, is here on a 457 visa – clearly an example of the government putting a foreigner ahead of several million Australians who couldn’t do any worse, given the lack of success in the prime minister’s spin doctoring.

But then the whole thing slips into tragedy. O’Connor was plain wrong and incompetent as he sniffed the dog whistle, but the alternative immigration minister, Scott Morrison, was giving it both lungs’ worth in a particularly tacky attempt to politically cash in on the trauma of a young woman being sexually assaulted, allegedly by an asylum speaker.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane said it first and best last week: “We await Morrison and Abbott committing to electronic ankle bracelets for priests and politicians, both of whom have far higher rates of criminal prosecution [than asylum seekers] and yet who are allowed to roam our streets in freedom with the community none the wiser.”

It seems a terrible choice we’re left with, between the intellectually bereft or the morally deficient.

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.