Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report
I've been part of many inquiries in this space; most have sought long-term solutions to long-term problems, bringing a bipartisan eye to fixing the issues which outlast the ebbs and flows of a three-year political cycle. The long-term lens of these inquiries is a vital part of our democracy. But perhaps more important is the impartial and bipartisan view that this longer time frame allows for, which, in turn, places the facts derived from experts ahead of the political games of the day. Many inquiries have changed tack. In 2020 and 2021 long-term plans have become less certain, as the pandemic threw our expectations up in the air. Predicting when we would return to normal or what normal might even look like has become much more risky. As a result, many inquiries have turned their focus to now and look to turning around our economy now.
A case in point is the infrastructure committee, which I chair, in which the 2019 inquiry looked at the futureproofing of our road infrastructure, anticipating the electric and hydrogen vehicle revolution of the next 30 years, while the 2020 inquiry looked at ways to substantially fund our infrastructure rollout now to prevent a recession, without burdening future generations with more debt. But skilled migration is a multifaceted problem. It can be a tool for regrowth now, but to do so to the detriment of future planning could set us back. Furthermore, the system as it stands is clunky and needed reform before the coronavirus pandemic upended the system anyway. So this inquiry comes in two parts: one to fix the now and one to fix the later. The second half of this inquiry is still ongoing, but the first part pertains to decisions that need to be made now, hence the tabling of this interim report.
Before I address the report itself, I would like to address the dissenting report which has been added to it. The dissenting report is right in that we must recognise the huge amounts of pain that Australians are suffering right now, and the large amount of unemployment that is affecting people across our nation. While we can all celebrate the dramatic reduction in unemployment in the latest figures—and, indeed, we can all congratulate ourselves on the speed with which this has happened, six months ahead of predictions—the people who remain unemployed are hurting more than normal. I congratulate the government on the economic supports they had put in place to see us through 2020. I also agree with the government that it is time to move from a broad based support to support targeted at the industries and regions that need it. But there remains uncertainty about just how the economy and unemployment rates will look when JobKeeper goes and it is replaced by more targeted schemes, and this unpredictability ties into the concerns of the dissenting report. But I have a fundamental disagreement with the dissenting report. I firmly believe that this is not a zero-sum game. This inquiry is not about picking winners and deciding who gets the limited number of jobs—locals or immigrants. That is specious reasoning. We are looking at skilled migration because it can add value to our existing skills.
Take an example from my electorate. I regularly say that Bennelong is Australia's capital of innovation, and some of the great Australian inventions have come out of our suburbs—not least, wi-fi. But, while we can claim local breakthroughs and innovative companies like Cochlear, we're also home to dozens of top-end multinationals. These groups don't just bring their knowledge and expertise to Australia; they also bring jobs. AstraZeneca is one in such a group. Although everyone knows them today as 'the COVID vaccine', what they may not know is that for decades they've been producing medicines right in the heart of Bennelong, adding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of production lines in the last five years alone, harnessing our access to Asian markets to build high-end manufacturing in Sydney. AstraZeneca are not alone, and many of the companies of 'Pill Hill' have domestic manufacturing arms. But, being multinationals, the intellectual property and unique capabilities often reside with their inventors offshore. If we want to put in this plant or that component, it doesn't just come in a box; it comes with an engineer, a scientist or a developer who can train up local talent on that particular widget. Without this migrant, it doesn't come. The factory doesn't work and the local jobs won't exist. Correctly targeting skilled migration breeds local jobs.
It goes without saying that we need to be fostering local high-tech startups here, which is an issue that goes to education and economic support and probably isn't particularly on topic here. Similarly, I've spoken at length about our need to build up sovereign capabilities in areas where we can use our competitive advantage. I commend the government on their manufacturing road map, part of which I joined Minister Andrews in launching at Cochlear a fortnight ago. But, again, this is tangential to the issue we are discussing here.
The government is committed to minimising the impact of COVID-19 on the Australian economy by safeguarding jobs for Australians, supporting critical industries and assisting with the rapid recovery post COVID-19. But, if we want that sustainable sovereign capability, there will be times when we will need the spark to come from overseas. That's okay, and that's what we need to be addressing through inquiries like this.
We can also be confident that finding the people will not be a challenge. In 2019, in looking around the world, there were few places that were better to live in than Australia. We had a strong economy, a great climate, a progressive and free society and opportunity everywhere. I've lived overseas for much of my life and can objectively say that Australia is one of the great locations to live, work and raise a family in. But in 2020, as the world struggled to cope with the pandemic and as the cases, followed by caskets, mounted in the capitals of Europe and the financial centres of the Americas and Asia, our colleagues in the desirable-location contest have fallen away.
If we look at the above economic and societal considerations and add safety, we are clearly the leader in the pack. If I were an engineer looking around the world for the best place to bring my career and knowledge, at the top of the list would be Australia. This is why we needed this inquiry now. We needed this inquiry to work out not only how to bring people in but how to bring the right people in—the ones who will create jobs, support our industries and grow our economy for all Australians.
Bennelong is one of the most multicultural electorates in the country. Since our suburbs were delineated, we have been home first to English and Italians and more recently to Chinese and Koreans as well as a countless host of smaller diasporas, which are too numerous to mention here. In looking at how our local economy has thrived and grown, I know that migration is not a dirty word. It is most desirable. Aside from Indigenous Australians, we have all been migrants at some point. Migration has made our economy stronger, but it has also made our community richer, and our diversity is unequivocally one of our greatest strengths. The return of skilled migration will be great for this country, and, in these unpredictable times, the only question is how to do it best.