OPINION | The Australian 31 August 2022
Immigration was a key driver of our economic growth before Covid-19, and it must be central to our economic recovery.
The Coalition government was forced to take extraordinary measures to save lives and protect jobs during the pandemic. Because of the action we took, not only did Australia have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but our economic support measures saved about 700,000 jobs, according to Treasury estimates.
Post-Covid, the Labor government’s Jobs and Skills Summit is a chance to watch in real-time as Anthony Albanese develops the policies he should have prepared in opposition.
When it comes to immigration, the focus must be on young skilled migrants and the regions. A focus on bringing in young, skilled workers will help mitigate the effects of our ageing population, which is a growing burden for young Australians to bear.
We have all seen reports that the jobs summit will lead to an increase in immigration numbers – but only if the Albanese government can satisfy the union's demands. The unions already have secured significant concessions from the government, with the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and a watering down of requirements for industry super funds to report transparently how members’ money is spent on political donations and entertainment.
Whether Labor abolishes the agricultural visa will be a real test. The Australian Workers Union opposes this visa for rural and regional Australia. It needs to be expanded beyond our agreement with Vietnam, not abolished. There is no good reason regional Australia shouldn’t have access to the Pacific workers scheme and the agriculture visa if both programs are run with integrity.
The new government must approach immigration with an understanding of its economic benefits but also the impact on jobs and skills, community cohesion, economic growth, infrastructure and the environment.
A challenge for Labor will be ensuring that planning and infrastructure provision keeps pace with its immigration intake. This work needs to extend to states, local governments and the non-government sector, which must be treated as partners working together to ensure our immigration policy aligns with future planning for housing, infrastructure, education and health services as well as a focus on work and training.
If the government is going to bring more people to this country, it must ensure these new arrivals can find a job and aren’t taking a job that could go to an Australian.
We also need the flexibility to adjust settings, so they work best for different regions. The designated-area migration agreements have proven effective and should be continued, but they operate more quickly and be more responsive to local needs. We need to share the dividends from skilled migration and ensure our capital cities aren’t carrying too much of the cost in terms of congestion and reduced liveability.
Small, medium and large businesses, as well as farmers, tell me they want a more flexible immigration system that is more user-friendly, more supportive of business and worker applicants, and more reasonable when dealing with errors in individual applications. Our immigration system should be guided by process and rules, not by what’s popular with Twitter or vested interests.
It needs a focus that will maintain our unemployment level at 4 per cent or below and one that continues to drive down long-term unemployment. It must be responsive to protect Australian jobs should these healthy figures reverse.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles also needs a high profile and strong work ethic. If he is not in the cabinet, then he must work harder to advocate for policies that will help alleviate worker shortages, support business activity and protect Australian jobs. The minister needs to develop a long-term strategy for immigration that is nation-building and clearly articulated to the public.
This strategy should put immigration policy within its proper context and how it impacts on population, the economy, jobs, lifestyle, congestion, the environment and other relevant factors. This framework will give the government a structure and viewpoint going forward while allowing for flexibility in response to events.
Our greatest asset is our people, and the government must realise the potential for Australia to grasp the opportunities and secure our future in a post-Covid world.