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.
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.
It was a rushed process in getting the interim report presented to the parliament when we did. However, the evidence that we heard in this inquiry was stark. It was repeated time and time again. It was very, very clear. The evidence is that there are so many jobs out there and yet we are still held back by an old-fashioned system. In relation to the first recommendation that's been opposed by the Labor Party, talking about how we streamline market testing, right at the moment you can go online and check and see how many jobs there are available. You can see how many jobs there are for a qualified chef. It's over 5,000. You can see how many jobs there are for a restaurant manager. You can see it with your own eyes on one website. Yet when it comes to market testing, these electronic online forums are not counted, so the only way that market testing can work is if you physically go and pay for the very expensive process of advertising in a paper.
When anybody wants to work in the restaurant system or in the cafe system or the hospitality system, the first thing they do is go online and check and see what's available. They don't go through the papers. Yet here we are with these old-fashioned regulations saying that market testing doesn't work unless you use the old newspaper system. Bringing this aspect of looking for work into the 21st Century is something we should be very, very proud of. This is not, as the Labor Party would suggest, that we are trashing the system. I think it's very, very disappointing that they have taken this approach.
The evidence that we heard was stark. It wasn't made up. It was clear from every witness, witness after every witness, that there's a whole raft of jobs out there that Australians simply don't want to do. It starts off with the abattoirs—dirty work, tough, hard work—it starts off with horticulture work, which can be done in the heat—difficult work—but then it moves into the trades, into diesel mechanics, motor mechanics, a lot of what they call the wet trades. Then it moves into some of the more glamorous trades of carpentry and electrical work. So there's a whole raft of jobs out there that clearly cannot be filled and that Australians don't want to fill.
The Labor Party suggested that we put in place a whole range of incentives to make it easier for Australians to work in the horticultural sector. So we did that; but we warned them that the take-up would be minimal, and it was minimal. I believe the recommendations that we have put forward are very well balanced and reflect the evidence that we heard. This is what's disappointing when the Labor Party heard exactly the same evidence. They had exactly the same facts and figures presented to them. They have an issue and are simply unable to bend their policies, and therefore they have to come out with a dissenting report. The concept that, right now, there are 5,000 jobs available for the position of chef in Australia is stark and alarming. I certainly wouldn't try to make it easier, because I'm the very proud father of Gabrielle Drum, who's just finished a 12-month, full-time pastry chef course at William Angliss. I'm not going to bring out competition for my daughter! What we find when we look into the hospitality sector is that, if you can bring in a chef at the back of a restaurant or you can bring in a restaurant manager at the front of the restaurant, then they can bring with them about five Australian jobs in the hospitality sector for each of the cornerstone jobs that go with the restaurant industry.
A very real way to grow Australian jobs and Australian businesses is to use overseas workers when we cannot find Australian workers to fill the roles. We need to look at the abattoir industry, because the abattoir industry is so critical for our agricultural sector. Farmers are currently building up their stocks and their herds. In 15 to 18 months, there will be an incredibly more significant amount of cattle that will need to be processed and we simply won't have the workers to do that.
The committee heard that we need to urgently expand the list of jobs on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List. Something that we heard time and time again is that we need to do that. There were also incredible delays in place throughout the Department of Home Affairs. There seemed to be lack of transparency. Employers weren't able to ascertain the stage of their application. They didn't know where their applications were in the queue. As I said earlier, this not just about what we might call dirty, tough jobs—unattractive work. We've found that we have a whole range of other trades for which employers are really struggling to fill apprenticeships. We've put an enormous amount of incentives around looking after first-year apprentices, yet we are still struggling to fill the roles. Like the previous speaker, I'm looking forward to getting in touch with the TAFE colleges, the learning institutions, to find out why young Australians are not moving into some of the trades. I was very happy and very proud to became a qualified carpenter in my younger years. It gave me the greatest start I could have hoped for. It's such a fantastic opportunity for so many young Australians to take up the opportunity to be a qualified tradie.
One of the recommendations we put in place is that the federal government work much more cohesively with the states and their peak bodies to recruit additional people under the Seasonal Worker Program and also the Pacific Labour Scheme. What we have seen this year is one of the greatest failures of government policy I have witnessed in my nearly 20 years in parliament. We have farmers in the horticultural sector that have developed the best fruit and the best strains of their particular commodity. They have had a bumper crop. They beat the rains, the heat, the pests, the birds, the frost and the hail—they beat it all—and created an absolutely bumper crop, only to be let down by state governments that didn't want the workers to come and get the crops off. They didn't want to put in place the quarantine processes. The industry was ready to pay for all of this, but, certainly in Victoria, under the Labor government, they simply didn't have the will to help those people on the farms by bringing in the labour to get the crops off. There are losses running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, of fruit just sitting there rotting on the trees and then finally falling to the ground. It's absolutely heartbreaking to see these responses from a government that simply didn't want to get involved in the work it needed to do in that regard.
So we've still got plenty of work to do. We've still got a lot of work to do. We haven't mentioned in here the problem that we have with undocumented workers, but that sort of fits hand in glove with what we're doing with skilled migrants and bringing additional people into this country. We've already got a large portion of people here who are working within horticulture who are effectively undocumented and have zero status because they overstayed whatever visa it was that they turned up on.
So we've got plenty of work to do, but the first thing I think we need to do is bring this labour market testing into the modern era. Let's accept that the way Australians look for a job today is go online. The first thing they do is they go online and they check it out thoroughly. We need to acknowledge that, if there are jobs that are available online, then that should be market tested and the people that are working within the departments should have a much better understanding of how each particular sector sits in relation to the people available to take those jobs or not available to take those jobs. Therefore, they should know once and for all, on a continual basis, which jobs need to be market tested and which jobs do not.
I too rise to speak on this interim report on Australia's skilled migration program. Can I just start off by saying that, as the member for Calwell said, I'm a child of migrants myself. My parents migrated here. My father came out on the system that Mr Calwell, the Prime Minister, first introduced, which was carried on by the Menzies government, where workers were asked to come out on a three-year contract. The agreement was that they would come here to fill positions for three years, and then, if they wanted to stay, they could stay, or they could go back. But three years was the minimum that they had to do.
At that time—I'm talking the early fifties—Australia's program on migration basically had a two-pronged approach. One was to fill a lot of manufacturing jobs and labouring jobs that couldn't be filled here in Australia, and the other one was to assist and help populate this vast country of ours. And that was the intention of that particular program. At the time, both the Menzies government and prior Labor governments had put in place a long-term measure—not a short-term fix, but a long-term measure—that benefited the nation, and our migration continued like that for a number of years, right through to the eighties. The department and researchers would look at where the shortages were and what the needs of the nation were and then would come up with the plan for migration. They'd basically say that we need 50,000, 100,000 or 80,000—depending. Those people would come here on that particular program and would immediately become permanent residents—immediately.
You may ask why I am raising this in the context of this particular inquiry. It's because we've been doing a skills program and point systems for a number of years, and they are not fulfilling our needs. We still have shortages in certain areas. We still need to grow our population if we want our economy to grow, our productivity to grow and the creation of jobs. What we've been doing is plugging holes. I think we have to revisit entirely the way that we do our migration in this nation. We have produced two-tier systems, where overseas workers are brought in specifically on a work visa for a short period. The majority of those people will put measures into place to get permanent visas down the track, costing them thousands of dollars in visiting migration agents et cetera. Nearly 80 to 90 per cent end up becoming permanent residents after a period of years and a lot of frustration and work.
Secondly, there's the system at the workplace. We've heard, as to this report, that the government members wanted to agree to watering down the market testing. Now, that would be very wrong—and it's not for a philosophical or ideological reason that I'm saying that—because, if we want to fill a position in Australia, I think it is our absolute duty, as employers and as governments, to ensure that there is not an unemployed person here in this country who could fill that position. When you can prove that, then you can be allowed to bring someone over. Taking that test away will make it open slather, for unscrupulous bosses as well, to bring people over and to keep on building on that two-tier system.
There is a two-tier system. While the majority of businesses are very ethical and they do care about their workers et cetera, there are many around—and I've seen this firsthand, because I've had constituents come and see me—where people are brought over, their passports are taken, they have to pay a certain amount back to the employer for bringing them here and for rent, food and a whole range of things, and, at the end, they're left with nearly zero. We've seen instances of this, and I'm sure my colleagues on this side and on the other side have seen instances of this. Even if this is happening at a very minimal level, we are giving the opportunity for it to happen more by taking away that market testing.
Market testing is an important part of skilled migration. It is an important part of work visas. There is nothing wrong with an employer having to prove that he has done all that is possible to fill that position with someone here in this country who is looking for work. It's not an unreasonable thing to have a market test so that you can prove that there is a need. What this does is to water it down completely.
In some of the occupations, they want to extend the occupations—everything from hairdressers to seafarers, which I found really hard to believe, when seafaring in this country is being diminished. It was only last week that I was speaking with a secretary of the MUA, Jamie Newlyn, who was telling me that most of the shipping companies and mining companies that run their own ships have basically gone offshore. There is absolutely no work for seafarers. There are no new people coming into it. Yet it is on the list. Hairdressing is another occupation that's on the list. There may be a shortage—I don't know. That's why we, on the committee, have asked to have all the TAFEs and training organisations and the departments that analyse skills and shortages to come and talk to us and tell us exactly how they came to the view that, in these particular occupations, there are shortages and why there are shortages.
We heard the member for Nicholls, Mr Drum, talk about chefs. There may be shortages of chefs in certain parts of Australia. But certainly in my seat—and I specifically made a point of going to talk to some of the restaurants and cafes et cetera—they told me that, yes, sure, there is a bit of a shortage, and people come and go, but the majority of the time they manage quite well. It could be very different in other parts, but that is no reason to take market testing away.
One of the other recommendations that we didn't agree to was the proposed funding cuts to skills and training provided through funding to the Skilling Australians Fund. That is the fund that employers pay into to assist with training. So it puts a bit of an onus on the industry to train people up, to look towards the future and train people up to be able to fill those positions. When you cut nearly $3 billion out of TAFE, as has been done by this government over the last eight years, you're going to have difficulty in getting people through apprenticeships et cetera. Let's not just throw everything out because there are shortages in some areas—and there are; no-one's denying it—but look at the systemic reasons that it is happening. One is skills and training. As I said, $3 billion has been cut out of TAFE. Surely it's going to have an effect when there are fewer staff at TAFE and fewer training courses and a whole range of other things?
Secondly, the market testing should remain because it is important. Thirdly, we have to overhaul entirely the way we look at migration so we don't fall into the trap of a two-tier system of workers. Workers who know their rights and what they're entitled to can speak out—and certainly they should be able to speak out, because we have a system in this country where we are all seen as equals—but underlying all of this are the overseas workers who come in and are unaware of their rights. They're unaware of what they can and can't do to speak out and ensure they're getting proper pay and are not being used at work, working extra hours. Only recently in South Australia an overseas worker in a cafe was physically abused. That is before the commission at the moment. We certainly do not support this interim report. (Time expired)
I rise to take note of the report into Australia's skilled migration program. On the weekend, somewhat to my surprise, I was privileged to be invited to the family celebration of a family I had never met before. The Joseph family invited me to their barbecue at Ballam Park in Frankston to celebrate 50 years since the Joseph siblings had come to Australia. Their family was originally from India and they had lived and worked in Karachi, but, because of the disruptions of war and the economic circumstances in India and Pakistan, they had to flee, and they came to Australia. Fifty years later, the Josephs are the picture of multicultural Australia. They have family members of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan descent. They've got German heritage, Croatian heritage, Irish heritage—they are a big, happy, loving, wonderful Australian migrant story.
What's really important about this country is that we do have a very welcoming approach to migration, and we should always have an incredibly welcoming approach to migration. We also need to make sure that people who are in Australia now have the skills and training to get the jobs that exist now and the jobs that are going to exist in the future. There are more than 1.3 million Australians on either JobSeeker—soon to be returned to Newstart, at $43.75 a day—or youth allowance. There are more than two million Australians who are looking either for work or for more work. We live in a country where, for the last eight years under this Liberal government, some $3 billion has been cut from TAFE and training systems and apprenticeships have been lost. We know because of this report that we live in a country where there are significant skills shortages in various industries, and those of us who talk to employers, young people and workers in our electorates know that there is a skills shortage.
Before I entered this parliament I was on the board of Peninsula Health, and I was shocked to hear at one of the meetings that we were advertising in the UK for mental health nurses because we couldn't get Australian trained mental health nurses for the hospital. That should never be the case. We have magnificent medical practitioners at Frankston Hospital and Peninsula Health who have come from all over the world. When I think about the people that work there—for example, Professor Srikanth, the amazing medical research director, who came from India—I am so pleased that we have people from all over the world working in our health system in Frankston. But it cannot be the case that, because we can attract the best talent, we neglect to train up our own people at the same time.
It should not be the case that we have 40,000 Australians stranded overseas wanting to come home, and yet we have a government that is looking to weaken labour market testing to expand the number of occupations on the skill shortage list to include chefs, veterinarians, seafarers, motor mechanics, cooks, carpenters, electricians, cafe managers and other hospitality roles. Each of those occupations are pretty popular in Dunkley. Seafarers—we don't have as many as some other electorates, that's true! But the others are pretty popular occupations in Dunkley, yet we're not training up our own people enough so that they can get jobs that they need. It's an indictment of this government that it has failed to properly appreciate the role of skills, traineeships and, most importantly, the public TAFE system over the eight years in which it's been the government. The approach to skill shortages needs to be training up Australian workers and then turning to overseas workers to fill skill gaps, while at the same time attracting the best and brightest to come and work here. That's a comprehensive approach.
This is a government that, by stealth, is pretty happy for our public TAFE system to be outsourced and privatised. We've seen it happen with employment services. Not a day goes by that my electorate office doesn't have a constituent contact us about difficulties with their job service provider, most of which are staffed by magnificent people, but the privatised system isn't working for the people that need the help.
TAFE is fundamentally important to my community. Frankston TAFE, now part of the Chisholm Institute, is geographically at the heart of Frankston and it's now at the magnificent heart of Frankston, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from the state Labor government, with a building and training facilities that are second to none. It's also at the heart of the future of many of the constituents in my electorate, and we're really proud of it. I thank the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for national reconstruction, who came with me recently to see what a first-class public TAFE and training facility really should look like. We need this government to act now. We can't wait for a Labor government, but I can tell you a federal Labor government would be investing in and supporting public TAFE at the heart of the skills and training system.
TAFE is a public institution at heart. We need a strong and sustainable public network of regionally accessible world-class vocational education and training. We need an active industry policy, which doesn't exist at the moment under this government, that is good for the economy and good for industry, and trains up and supports our people to work in the industries of the future. We have to have education and training providers, with industry and federal and state governments working together for a training system.
I commend to this government recent reviews undertaken in both New South Wales and Victoria by, among others, Jenny Macklin, who was one of the best policy thinkers in this federal parliament before she left and is now one of the best policy thinkers not in this federal parliament in the whole country. Look at those reports and actually consider what a holistic, properly constructed skills and training program looks like, remembering that the Productivity Commission's role and public TAFE have to be at the heart of it.
I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to make a few brief comments on this interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. My comments will highlight why it's significant that this is an interim report, because, frankly, the government members of this committee need to do better. I just want to take a bit of time to explain why this is so and why it matters so much to all of us but particularly to Australia's reconstruction, as my friend the member for Dunkley was just touching upon—an issue dear to all of us on this side of the House, an issue in which respect of which members opposite seem all too often to be oblivious.
I think our starting point should be this. Modern Australia is a nation that has been built on migration. The multiculturalism that has come through successive waves of migration is, I believe, our greatest achievement. It has brought us enormous economic benefit together with great social and cultural benefits. This is something has got to be at the heart of any Australian government worth its salt. Those of us who are in this place right now have an opportunity and an obligation to do something that hasn't been done for 70 years, and that is to restart a migration program. The work of this committee should shape that conversation, but frankly the majority recommendations would actually take us back. I urge government members to spend a bit of time looking at the work of my Labor colleagues and the recommendations that they have put as an alternative framework, because these set down some markers that the government should have regard to.
Before going to those recommendations, there are a couple of contextual remarks that need to be made. Firstly, when we're talking about temporary migration, we can't ignore the attitude of this government at the start of the pandemic, when it simply abandoned so many people in this country, at a great cost to them and a great cost to all of us. We remember the rhetoric about 'going home' and the harm that did—the harm to individuals, the harm to our community, the economic harm that will endure long after those words were spoken. What we see here is a failure to grapple with that. It's also a failure to grapple with this government's inability to do one of its most fundamental jobs, which is to look after Australian citizens, to honour the promise the government made to our people. Forty thousand remain overseas, shamefully, despite the promise of the Prime Minister last September that everyone would be home by Christmas. We wonder which Christmas he was referring to when we see the recommendation that places that should be set aside for them should instead be allocated otherwise. What an absurd remark. What an absurd recommendation, which should be reconsidered.
What also should be reconsidered is this lazy, reflexive attitude to policymaking. The member for Dunkley very effectively set out the skills challenge that should be part of any government. We shouldn't simply be relying on turning on and off taps in other areas of our policymaking arsenal to deal with the skills challenge—and the secure jobs challenge, which also should be at the heart of this government's work. There are so many elements of the majority report that I am concerned with. I urge government members to take great advantage of the fact that this is an interim report, to look at the work of my Labor colleagues on this, to engage with communities, with unions and with businesses and to think about the first principles that should inform a decent immigration policy that values immigration, as we do on this side of the House, and that recognises every dimension of our national interest.
The priority of any federal government, any Australian government, should always be the Australian people. We as parliamentarians are elected to serve the Australian people and are elected by the Australian people to do so. Every decision that this parliament makes should have the Australian people at its centre. That's why I'm slightly embarrassed to be standing here speaking on the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration's interim report into Australia's skilled migration program, which fail to put the Australian people first.
There are still two million Australians either unemployed and looking for work or underemployed and looking for more work, and this figure is only set to rise at the end of the month when the government ends JobKeeper. Despite this, we have this report which recommends a new migration plan that would prioritise foreign workers over Australians for jobs like hairdressers, carpenters, electricians, seafarers, cooks, motor mechanics and many more. These recommendations do not put Australians first. This will undermine the ability of Australians to get jobs by making it easier for businesses to bring in migrant workers. And the report recommends that the government weaken labour market testing and expand the number of occupations on the skills shortage list to include chefs, veterinarians, cafe managers, seafarers, motor mechanics, cooks, carpenters, electricians and many other hospitality roles, with no consideration of what this means for Australians looking for jobs now.
These recommendations also see the scarce quarantine spots and scarce spots on flights to Australia go to some of these migrant temporary workers. This is when there are still 40,000 Aussies stuck overseas trying to get home. In September, the Prime Minister promised stranded Australians that he would get them home by Christmas. That didn't happen. It's March and we're still waiting. And now government MPs on this joint standing committee on migration think that it's a great idea to start filling up those all-too-rare spots on flights and in quarantine with foreign temporary workers. It makes no sense. For the government to end JobKeeper and increase JobSeeker by a mere $3.57 per day and now place businesses and foreign temporary workers ahead of unemployed Australians and Australians stuck overseas—all in the same month—is really an insult.
The issue here is what we have as a vision for this country, with respect to our immigration program. As a son of migrants, the immigration debate does not offend me, and here's why. I'm an Australian. I'm very proud to be an Australian. My parents came from Egypt 50 years ago to settle in this country. I think we have to have the debate about immigration and migration to ensure our best economic, social and cultural future. Prime Minister Morrison's contribution to this debate is to make a virtue of reducing permanent migration. He stated back in 2019, before the pandemic:
… we brought the permanent migration rate down to its lowest level in a decade by focusing on the integrity of the visa system and prioritising Australians for Australian jobs.
That's what the Prime Minister said in late 2019. I have a message for the Prime Minister: when I talk about Australian jobs, it's about Australian citizens. I'm talking about people with Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese, African, Latin American, Lebanese, Italian, Irish and Indian backgrounds, and new Australians from every—
And Egyptian! Thank you. I'll take that interjection. We came from every part of the world. That's who we are as Australians. We've come from everywhere. That's part of our permanent migration program. We've settled here, we've made a life here and we've contributed. When I talk about jobs for Australians, that's what I'm talking about. Permanent migration has actually made us one of the most economically prosperous and successful multicultural nations in the world. The way the Prime Minister put it, he was proud to declare that he'd reduced permanent migration, as if this were a good thing. And here's the rub: not only was he talking up the reduction in permanent migration as a virtue; while he was doing that, what was really actually happening under his watch, both as immigration minister and later as Prime Minister, was an increase to the numbers of temporary migrant workers into this country.
We, as a nation, have a history of welcoming migrants to this country, asking them to join us not just temporarily but as new Australian citizens. Like I said, immigrants like my parents from Egypt and millions of other Australians have been central to our cultural life, our social life and our economic prosperity. When our borders do reopen, I know, and my colleagues on my side of politics know, that we must repeat this success—the success that we saw, in particular, post World War II—and renew our commitment to increasing permanent migration post COVID-19. And this migration program must continue to reflect the principle that our acceptance of migrants is not based on their ethnicity, their faith, their place of birth or their gender. Of course, with that principle come proper stringent health checks, security vetting and so on that migrants need to meet to ensure that they can come into the country.
I want to make a point about the temporary migration that I touched on. It's a stopgap. It's there to fill skills shortages. It's important to keep our economy ticking over—absolutely. When you've got shortages, you need those workers if you can't fill them with Australians to do those jobs, but there are also a lot of problems, and we've seen this: wage theft, breaches of workplace rights and poor conditions for these temporary workers. That needs to be addressed. There was a 2019 report which suggested that as many as 50 per cent of temporary migrant workers may be underpaid in their employment. For eight long years, this coalition government has moved by stealth to what we would know in some parts of the world as a guest-worker model. The rise in the number of temporary work visas has been astounding. There are, I think, two million temporary work visas, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne. That puts a lie to the Prime Minister talking about congestion-busting when he reduces permanent migration. All the while, he's increased the number of temporary migrants that have created some of the pressures in the housing market or in other parts of our economy. For eight years, this government has moved to this model while dropping the permanent migration numbers. This government is breaking the immigration model at the heart of our success as a nation post World War 2.
We are only going to succeed post COVID in our economic recovery if we get the migrant composition right. If we go back to the model where we are really serious about permanent migration, skilled migration, people will want to come to this country and give everything of themselves to their new country—to settle here, not to be here for a couple of years or send money away and then go again—and become Australians. That's what we want to see. That's what will help us succeed in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery phase. Our future as a nation depends on us getting this policy right.