Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report
I appreciate the member for Bennelong's contribution to the debate. I want to reflect on the fact that he and I have been on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration for a couple of terms together. Indeed, in this term, in the 46th Parliament, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration has conducted what is now its third inquiry. We began with trying to examine regional migration and how we might better promote settlement in the regions and address the obvious labour workforce shortages in the regions. Of course, the COVID pandemic meant that it was impossible for us to continue with that particular inquiry, so we then moved on to examining the very pressing issue of the great shortage of labour, again in regional Australia, in our horticultural industry. We examined the working holiday-maker visas and the backpackers and the absence of those people and the impact that that's having on our skills shortages. At present, we're examining Australia's skilled migration program.
Opposition and other members have worked together and have managed to work through some of the differences that we may have had—and we managed to improve our recommendations in the previous inquiries. But while I understand the immediate need to address an issue around skills, given COVID, on this particular occasion we feel that the pressing need to come back with some recommendations has also had the effect of rushing the inquiry. I use the word 'rushing' because this is an important inquiry. It needs a period of time for us to examine the diversity of evidence that is put before us in order to effectively underpin our recommendations with what is happening on the ground and the facts that are on the ground. This is the reason why the opposition members have put in their dissenting report. Clearly there are areas where we, as an opposition, have great difficulty in agreeing with the government. I want to go, in particular, to three of the recommendations in the dissenting report to try and shed some light on how concerned we are about the possible adverse effects should the list of recommendations be implemented as proposed in the report.
In the first recommendation, Labor members of the committee do oppose the streamlining of the labour market testing or other exemptions for businesses that provide incentives that we believe disadvantage Australian workers. We have a concern about streamlining or interfering with the labour market testing, because there is an element of suspicion in the community based often on evidence of bad practice from employers. Some of the people that have put evidence before us have even suggested that we abolish labour market testing altogether. I think when you go down that path, whilst you might be trying to find a way of addressing a problem in the short term, you might actually be opening up an area of disadvantage that may impact negatively on the job market in relation to local employment opportunities.
We also oppose the proposed funding cuts to skills and training provided through funding the Skilling Australians Fund. There was some concern raised about the impact or the effect of the Skilling Australia Fund, whether in actual fact it is doing what it's supposed to be doing, and that is skilling Australians to fill these many jobs that are on the shortages list. So, in the absence of not being fully convinced that the fund is redundant or should be done away with, we will continue to support the Skilling Australia Fund.
On the issue of expanding the number of occupations on the skills shortages list, this was where many opposition members had great difficulty with understanding, and, in fact, I think one of the government members on the committee had similar difficulties, that occupations would be expanded to include chefs, vets—vets I can understand to a certain extent, but—cafe and restaurant managers, civil engineers, electrical engineers, motor mechanics, cooks, carpenters, electricians and other roles in hospitality, health, trades, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. That covers a very large gamut of jobs and employment and professions in Australia, and I'm left wondering: do we not have people who are training for these positions? I think it's a question that we really need to examine, and I actually look forward to examining it as we progress in this inquiry. In fact, it was at our instigation that we are seeking to receive evidence from the very institutions, such as TAFEs in particular, who are supposed to be training tradies. I know for a fact in my own electorate a lot of young people and, indeed, mature-aged people who become unemployed actually want to re-skill. They want to be part of what is clearly a lucrative tradie profession, but for some reason something is going fundamentally wrong with apprentices. I'm coming across young people who can't get an apprenticeship or who have very bad experiences in their first year of apprenticeship or who can't get a second year apprenticeship. Whilst all of that is going on building our local capacity, it is really worrying, because the problem is if we bring in, for a short-term fix, all of these professions I'll be left wondering: will any of our local people ever get an opportunity to train and be employed in those areas? I think that's one of the reasons that we are objecting to expanding the skills shortages list. It seems to me that it's covering such a wide range of employment areas that, quite rightly, a lot of my local people will feel that perhaps they will be squeezed out of future opportunities to find employment and training in these areas.
No-one's going to be able to accuse me of being anti-migration—never. I came to this country under the Arthur Calwell migration program. My parents and their generation were brought here because this country needed people. It needed to grow population. It needed people to work in its manufacturing and infrastructure and to build it. Today we are a very successful country. We will always look to migration in order to fill gaps. But we need to do it in a way that balances opportunity to grow our own capacity here in this country and the opportunity for young people and mature-aged people, certainly in my electorate, who are trying to get skilled and trying to get these jobs, balancing that with the reality of exactly how much of a shortage we have. We also need to take into consideration that it's right that we should feel a bit concerned about how employers, especially big employers, may take advantage of some of these opportunities and in fact go for the quick fixes and ignore their responsibility to employ and grow our local capacity.
So the reason for our dissenting report is based on a belief that we really need to find a balance between the two. I look forward to the rest of this inquiry. I know we're going to examine these areas. We're going to talk to the TAFEs and the unions. We're going to talk to a diversity of people so we can be better informed about what really is happening in building our domestic capacity.