Interview with Ross Greenwood, Sky News Live Business Weekend

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ROSS GREENWOOD:

Well, as of Wednesday of this week, despite Omicron and the suspension of flights from African countries, some fully vaccinated international students and skilled workers will be allowed to enter Australia without exemption for the first time since early 2020. Now, while Australia’s travel bubble with Singapore will now be extended to Japan and South Korea. And that will allow people from those countries to get here and not be forced into self-quarantine. The idea is to get Australia’s international student industry back on track and tackle labor shortages. This week I met with Employment Minister Stuart Robert and asked him how the government has calculated the number of migrants allowed to enter the country over the next 12 months.

MINISTER ROBERT:

We opened up to migrants under the Singapore bubble, 61,000, these were visas already issued. From December 1, we will see 162,000 students, visas already issued, 56,000 economic or other visas, visas already issued. So in total, around 235,000 migrants both students and economic migrants, and these are just existing visas. So the number was not invented, it was already in play.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

OK. But 235,000 is a far cry from what it was previously at 160,000. Is this a situation where these additional workers are needed right now? Will they be sufficient to alleviate the current skills shortage?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Don’t confuse the numbers, and it’s a great conversation. So previously we would have about 160,000 skilled migrants and a few hundred thousand student visas and one hundred thousand seasonal worker or backpacker visas. So you sort of put them together, you get about 460,000. Students were coming and going and backpackers coming and going. So sort of 460, now we have 235. So that’s the disparity. So the number is now much lower than it used to be. These are the existing visas, with 160,000 students, we still need 40 or 50,000 students to get to where we were.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Okay, but we know that previously it was said to be Australia’s third largest industry in terms of economic value. So, is this trying to recreate economic value through the influx of students? Or is it also trying to reduce the pressure on wages and potentially inflation?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The problem is not wages or inflation. That’s roughly, we have an industry that has lost 200,000 students. These visas have been issued, they have studied in a lot of ways abroad, so it’s about bringing them back and reviving this industry. Also reflecting that students can generally work 20 hours per week. 15% of our entire hotel workforce, before COVID and for a long time, had a visa. Australians aren’t well known for doing a lot of hospitality or fruit-picking work, for that matter. That’s why we have student visas to work 20 hours, that’s why we have backpacker visas, that’s why we have seasonal worker visas. So he does two things in terms of the education industry and picks up a lot of these unskilled workers.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Since our migration rates have fallen to WWI levels – that’s how low they are – is this a case now where we’re starting to rebuild faster because, a: skills are needed, b: we have the possibility of becoming a greater Australia? Does it fly for the government right now?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Or there is a C. And the C is that there has never been a better time to put Australians to work. Normally, the federal government spends $ 3 billion per year on our VET – Vocational training sector. Spent $ 6.5 billion this year, $ 5.9 billion last year. The largest participation of qualified Australians we have seen. We now have the largest number of trades apprentices, 217,000 in training since records were kept in 1963. So we are doubling our efforts to train qualified Australians to give them the opportunity to find work, because while we are short, one of many overseas migrants and, of course, workers are leaving the labor market every year to retire, a wonderful opportunity to put Australians to work. We don’t want to waste this. Yes, we will open our borders to skilled migrants passing through, but the government’s first priority – this is option C – is getting skilled Australians and Australians to work.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Let’s go back to these skilled migrants coming from overseas, because given Australia’s track record with COVID, we are currently considered one of the cleanest countries in the world, a healthy place to come. Australia’s ability to attract these skilled migrants who can really, if you will, bring real economic benefit to Australia in the long run, is almost perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. Will Australia benefit from it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It will, but it will balance it out to make sure we don’t put the Australians at a disadvantage. You and I, Ross, we want our sons and daughters to have opportunities in Australia. And this opportunity for Australians comes before anything else. At the same time, we have the National Skills Commission looking at the priority skills we need, looking at the supply at national level, and then informing us about what our skilled migration should be. So a much more technical approach now to what our skilled migration is because we want Australians to have the opportunity to learn skills and to work.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Because one of the problems is if you can’t control wages, if wages take off due to shortages of skilled or unskilled labor, then inflation takes off, which could leave the Reserve Bank in a tough position with interest rates, again not going to be politically popular.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, inflation will only take off if wage growth occurs outside of economic growth or outside of productivity improvements. So if the economy is growing, productivity improves, you expect wages to rise and inflation, therefore, will not soar. And that’s exactly what Dr Lowe argued in his speech last week, he doesn’t expect inflation to get out of hand with economic growth, declining unemployment and as the economy shrinks. develops, starting to see productivity increase.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

But it also underlines the importance of opening these international borders to workers coming from abroad. And indeed, why state borders must be reopened so that there can be free movement of workers between different states.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh, this is fundamental. Labor must move freely and evenly where there is demand. Capital too. It is the basis of how the economy will move and it is as much between state borders as it is internationally. But what we cannot allow, of course, is a huge influx of migrants to displace Australian workers. Now let’s put the payroll or get rid of the idea that migrants abroad are cheaper. They are not. Any overseas migrant who enters Australia costs more to bring here and their pay is exactly the same.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Stuart Robert, thank you very much for your time.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great pleasure.

[ENDS]


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