IPA Today

Pensioner Power Beats Migrant Workers

Written by
12 January 2023
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

Governments never ask the public how they think worker shortages should be remedied – if they did, they would get a different answer to pulling the migration lever.

A few days before last year’s federal election, Anthony Albanese promised that if elected prime minister, he would “change the way that politics operates in this country”. He pledged, for example, to answer questions and to “avoid soundbites”.

It’s a change yet to eventuate.

When Peter Dutton wrote to him a few days ago with 15 questions about the Indigenous Voice to parliament, the prime minister accused the opposition leader of engaging in the “culture war”. Presumably when Albanese talked to The Sydney Morning Herald about “actually answering questions”, he wasn’t referring to replying to questions from the opposition about the biggest change to the country’s Constitution in a generation.

A post on Twitter from the PM responding to Dutton’s questions, which included “How will members [of the Voice] be elected, chosen or appointed?“, “How many people will make up the body?” and “How much will it cost taxpayers annually?“, declared: “People are over cheap culture war stunts.”

The prime minister’s tweet looks suspiciously like an old-fashioned sound bite. And there’s no indication he will answer Dutton any time soon.

Labor in government hasn’t changed the process of politics nor has it changed the process of policymaking. In September, it announced a review of Australia’s migration system, and it’s the status quo again. As with the Coalition, when Labor wants a review done it searches for retired public servants, lawyers and consultants. Which is exactly what’s happened.

Three people are reviewing Australia’s migration system: a retired public servant, a lawyer and a consultant who worked at one of the big four firms. The Department of Home Affairs states proudly that they “reflect Australian society in terms of gender balance and migration backgrounds”. Whenever “diversity” is trumpeted, you can rest assured there’s diversity of all sorts represented – except of opinion.

The hammer of immigration

A poll of 1000 Australians last year asked their opinions on the best way to overcome the worker shortage. Four options were offered: allowing more pensioners to work; increasing labour market flexibility; bringing in more migrants; and “None of the above”. The responses for each option were respectively 53 per cent, 30 per cent, 10 per cent, and 8 per cent.

In New Zealand, 25 per cent of pensioners are in the workforce. In Australia, because of pension rules, that figure is 3 per cent.

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When it comes to worker shortages, the hammer of immigration is the only tool successive Coalition and Labor administrations appear to have wanted to put their hands on.

A review of Australia’s migration system after the pandemic is worthwhile, but in the absence of the government wanting to have any sort of debate about population policy, the outcomes of the review will inevitably turn into a plan not just for our immigration intake but also about our population size.

The first recommendation in the Business Council of Australia’s submission to the review effectively acknowledges this point. According to the BCA, the migration intake should be set as a pre-determined percentage of the country’s population.

The government seems to be eager to get opinions from as many sources as possible, except the public.

Such a recommendation has far more to do with what the BCA and big business believes Australia’s population should be than it with filling worker shortages.

The order in which those with whom the review will consult, listed on the department’s website, is revealing. Perhaps it was an accident, or maybe it was an over-eager junior public servant taking some initiative.

“The review will be informed by research, analysis and extensive consultations with: government, unions, industry, business, migrant communities, academia and civil society, state and territory governments, and like-minded partners internationally,” the department says. Who are “like-minded partners internationally”? The department doesn’t specify.

As usually happens in matters of immigration and population, the government seems to be eager to get opinions from as many sources as possible, except the public.

Just over one in 10 of all employees in Australia is trade union member. Somehow though, under Labor, unions get to rank in importance second only to the government. Which makes it all politics as usual for 2023.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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