Thursday, 18 March 2021
Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I present the committee's report, incorporating dissenting reports, entitled Interim report of the inquiry into Australia's skilled migration program.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on Australia's workforce. While 94 per cent of Australians who lost their jobs or were stood down to zero hours are now back in work, there are still significant skills shortages in our economy. As a result of COVID-19, over half a million temporary visa holders left Australia, resulting in significant skills shortages.
The committee has heard that job vacancies in November last year reached 254,000, higher than at any point in the last 10 years. Business New South Wales told the committee that half of the businesses in New South Wales are currently experiencing skill shortages. In Western Australia, one in three businesses have skilled labour shortages. More than a third of businesses in the Northern Territory have identified their greatest challenge, over the next three to six months, as attracting and retaining staff.
The committee has heard repeatedly that skilled migrants create Australian jobs. Australia needs to replace skilled migrants that left our shores. Without the return of skilled migration, Australia's economic recovery will be severely hampered and it will be harder to create more jobs for Australians. Employers have made it clear to the committee that they always prefer to employ Australians over migrants, but the skills they need aren't always available here. Skilled migrants are not replacing Australian graduates, nor are they replacing unskilled unemployed Australians, but they are filling the missing middle of our economy, including people who can train Australians and whose presence in a business can create more Australian jobs.
Australia has always been an attractive destination for migrants, but Australia's excellent response to the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and our lack of social unrest have given us a unique opportunity to attract the best and brightest talent to Australia, not only to fill skill shortages but also to invest in and create new businesses that will provide new employment opportunities for Australians. Our challenge now, as we enter the next phase of Australia's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, is to ensure we have streamlined processes to make it easier to get the skilled workers Australian businesses need, enabling them to grow and create more jobs. So now is the time to attract highly talented individuals and businesses to Australia. This is an opportunity we will never get again, and we need to ensure Australia gets those settings right.
The recommendations in this report are aimed at ensuring that we can take advantage of that opportunity. The terms of reference examined in this report focus on the immediate changes to the skilled migration program required to assist in the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to attract talented individuals and capital to Australia. This report makes a number of recommendations to help businesses get the skilled migrants they need and to ensure that the program can best service Australia's economic recovery.
The committee recommends streamlining labour market testing to ensure it's not an undue burden on Australian business. The committee recommends temporarily removing the Skilling Australians Fund, or at least streamlining its application process to ensure funds are paid into it when the business employs the migrant and to provide business exemptions when they provide training for their Australian employees. We also recommend greater transparency in the way the SAF is used. To remove uncertainty for employers and visa holders, the committee recommends greater transparency, improved processing times and clear pathways to permanent residency for employer-sponsored visa applications. We've also made some recommendations about expanding the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List and reviewing the other skilled migration lists to ensure they are more responsive to the current challenges. In order to ensure we're getting skilled migrants to Australia, the committee has recommended reserving places on flights and in quarantine for skilled migrants. The committee recommended that the Business Innovation and Investment Program and the Global Talent Independent program provide for visas with automatic permanent residency and for temporary visas with clearer pathways to permanent residency. Finally, the committee recommends a marketing campaign to help attract highly talented individuals and businesses to Australia at this time.
I note that Labor and the Greens have issued dissenting reports opposing these recommendations. Labor haven't read the evidence and they weren't listening during the inquiry. The truth is that Labor is divided on immigration. The dissenting report echoes the union inspired, backward-thinking, discredited, dog-whistling, Hansonite policies of Senator Keneally, which were rightly condemned by Labor luminary Bob Carr; the member for Cowan; and the member for Sydney, who said:
One of the reasons that the Australian economy has been growing … at all frankly, in recent times is because of strong immigration numbers.
The member for McMahon, in his recent book, accuses our side of the House of being 'anti-migrant charlatans', but the real charlatans are the Labor Party. Labor's actions show that Labor cannot be trusted to run either the economy or the immigration program. If Labor were serious about getting Australians back into the jobs, they'd be serious about getting skilled migrants here to create the jobs Australians need.
I encourage all people who are interested in the skilled migration program to respond to this interim report, and I commend the report to the House.
by leave—Report tabling is normally a pretty sedate affair, where you try to reach bipartisan agreement. But not this time. This is outrageous, from the Labor Party's perspective. This is ill-conceived and appallingly timed. This government-controlled committee has made recommendations that will clearly undermine the ability of Australians to get jobs by making it easier for businesses to bring in foreign workers. There's a timing issue here.
I'll be very clear at the outset: this is not an anti-migration speech, as has been alleged. I represent the most multicultural council in the whole of Australia. You wouldn't find anyone in the last four years who has spoken more in favour of migration and visa issues than me. But it is difficult to overstate the strength of Labor's opposition to this report and these recommendations.
The context is critical. We have a hangover from the recession which continues. More than 1.3 million Australians today are surviving on unemployment benefits. That includes JobSeeker and the 'youth allowance, other' category. Two million Australians are looking for work, or they're looking for more work because they don't have enough hours to get by. And we're about to see JobKeeper scrapped. As the Prime Minister said, it's going to be a difficult couple of months, because he's pushing hundreds and thousands more people onto the unemployment queue. So, right at this very time—astoundingly—when millions of Australians are looking for work, the priority of government members of parliament is to put Australians at the back of the queue and make it easier for business to bring in foreign workers.
To be very clear, Labor MPs oppose the government's desire. In the interests of time, I'll pick just four recommendations—ones that were highlighted by the government. The first is to streamline labour market testing. That's government-speak for reducing or removing the requirement for businesses to test the market, to advertise jobs, before they seek to bring in a foreign worker. That's all it is—trashing labour market testing, in effect.
The second is scrapping the requirement for employers to pay the levy to the Skilling Australians Fund. This fund is to train local workers when employers are bringing in foreign labour. If you like, it's a price signal to a business, saying: 'Okay, if you really need this worker, and you've tested the market and we haven't trained enough, you're going to pay a bit of money into the Skilling Australians Fund on the way through.' This was the government's policy. I spoke on that bill and pointed out the perversity that they'd cut $3 billion from the TAFE sector since coming to office and would then charge employers money, when they're bringing in migrants, to fund the TAFE system. It's countercyclical and it's weird, and we've said all that, but at least it's there now and it's funding TAFE. These government members of this committee are proposing to scrap that.
The third is the immediate expansion of the number of occupations on the skills shortage list: chefs; cafe and restaurant managers! There are no Australians who can do that job, apparently! Then seafarers—really, what they mean by 'seafarers' is 'Australians not prepared to work for the slave wages which have been implemented by this government' as they've trashed the Australian shipping industry and prioritised other occupations. Then there are cooks; carpenters; electricians—we didn't hear from the ETU about the inquiry, but I'm sure you will—hospitality workers and trades and manufacturing workers. Astounding!
But this is my personal favourite: while more than 40,000 Australians are stranded overseas because the Prime Minister has turned his back on them, refusing to take responsibility for quarantine and borders, the government members propose special reserved seats on flights and places in quarantine for skilled migrants. That's astounding! You can see it now, can't you? Business class up the front of the plane for the migrants that business want to bring in, and cattle class down the back for the few stranded Australians who manage to get on the plane. Australians, again, are at the back of the queue.
You couldn't make this stuff up. It might have made sense if they'd tabled it on 1 April. Then at least I could see a line of twisted logic. But government members seriously think this is good. This is in the context of a recession and on the very day that the government's priority in this parliament is to get a bill through the Senate making it easier to cut people's wages—a double whammy.
I heard what the chair said, and I count him as a friend and I respect him greatly. But this is rushed. It is unbalanced. Shame on them!
I'll make three final points. This is not the government flying a kite. Be very clear: this is what the minister wants. The member for Berowra, the chair of the committee, is a senior backbencher. He's an intelligent man. He doesn't just freelance—he's not the member for Dawson, like on the committee report that I just spoke on. He's on his way to the ministry; frankly, he should be there, when you see some of the muppets who are there. He knows what he's doing. I shouldn't give you the kiss of death with that! The minister built into the terms of reference a requirement for the committee to report on these matters by March—because this is what they want to do in the budget. QED; join the dots.
Next myth: this is not about regional agriculture and farm workers, as the government members may pretend. There's a crisis there. Of course there is. We've supported action on that. We've done a report on that. This is not about that. You can still employ working holiday-makers, and there's the Pacific seasonal worker program and other seasonal workers programs. As I said, I'm not anti migration—far from it. I used to run skilled and business migration programs in the Victorian government. I'm actually a supporter of skilled migration. But it is hypocrisy for the government to say we were anti migration when we were in government! The government has presided over a massive cut to permanent migration while temporary migration blows out. What a nonsense! Then they come and say, 'Maybe we should have more pathways to permanency for migrants?' Of course you should. It's like they haven't been in government for the last eight years.
The final point I'd make is that this comes in the context of a much broader mess that this government has made of migration in Peter Dutton's black hole of a department—partner visas blowing out; 100,000 Australians desperate to be reunited with their family, their loved ones; parents who've never met their children, like in my electorate where, 12 months on, they've never met their child; students; businesses; delays, blowouts; fees rising. And there's the mess they've made of the training system. If nothing else, this is an admission of abject failure by this government. Apprenticeships have been slashed in their eight years of government, and $3 billion has been cut from the TAFE and training system. And so their answer is panic, panic, panic, waive the skills fund, scrap labour market testing and reserve special seats on planes and places in quarantine for foreign workers and skilled migrants to come in now, while the Prime Minister fails to take responsibility and do his job on quarantine, as he should under the Australian Constitution.
Let's be very clear, for the government: just like your industrial relations legislation and the wage cut bills, you're not going to sue for peace on this. You can't get out of this. We know this came from the minister. It doesn't matter if you crab-walk away; this is your agenda and this is what you want to see happen in this country as we try to recover from a recession.