Australian politicians are tapping an undercurrent of distrust of foreigners as the nation grinds into the long campaign for the September 14 federal election.
Amid counter-accusations of demonisation and xenophobia, both sides are warning of threats to employment and security as fears grow for jobs and opportunities for the nation's young.
Prime Minister Gillard had signalled employment as a major battleground for the election, promising a clampdown on the 457 visas that allow temporary work for foreigners and which she claims are being abused by unscrupulous employers.
"We want more Australian workers to fill the skilled jobs our economy creates," she told a Council of Trade Unions conference yesterday.
"This is exactly what the Australian people expect the Australian Government to stand for. It is exactly what I will fight for."
The Opposition accuses the Government of demonising skilled workers from abroad, and instead is focusing on asylum seekers, urging harsh new measures and urging registration with police and "mandatory behaviour protocols" for those released into the community.
But there are clear signs Gillard is hitting a nerve among voters.
Research conducted for the ACTU reported the greatest concern of 55 per cent of Australians was a future lack of access to good jobs for their children.
Fairfax newspapers said confidential focus group research being conducted for Labor had shown a favourable response for Gillard's promise to put Australian workers first, especially in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.
Fairfax quoted an unnamed senior Government insider as saying voters believed the 457 skilled migrant visa programme had been rorted by employers, with the result that Australian workers with suitable skills were being shunted to the back of the line.
This week's Newspoll in the Australian reported that after pushing the message in western Sydney, Gillard received a boost that again placed her ahead of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister.
The poll also reported a 3 per cent rise in Labor's primary vote: within the margin of error but still a shift that narrowed the Opposition's election-deciding two-party preferred lead from 10 per cent to 4 per cent.
The Government recently announced plans to tighten controls on 457 visas, which allow foreigners to temporarily work for up to four years under the sponsorship of an employer. The visas are also a pathway to residency.
While the Government supports the aim of the scheme to supply skills that Australians cannot provide, it claims the visas have been abused by employers and intends tightening conditions.
Gillard said the assumption that 457 visas were mainly held by foreigners working in remote Australia was not supported by the facts.
Only one-sixth were employed in mining and resources, and there had been a shift from workers with higher skills, degrees and advanced trades, to lower skills.
The number of temporary foreign workers was increasing at 20 times the rate of employment growth, and was mainly directed at IT, accommodation and food services, and skilled labour in hospitals and health care, Gillard said.By Greg Ansley Email Greg