Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview with Ross Greenwood, Sky News Live Business Weekend

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Well, from Wednesday this week, notwithstanding Omicron and suspension of flights from African countries, some fully vaccinated international students and skilled workers will be allowed into Australia without exemption for the first time since early 2020. Now, while Australia’s travel bubble with Singapore will be now expanded to Japan and South Korea. And that will allow people from those countries to arrive here and not be forced to quarantine. The idea is to get Australia’s international student industry back up and running and to take pressure of labour shortages. This week, I sat down with Employment Minister, Stuart Robert and asked him how the Government worked out just how many migrants will be allowed into the country in the next 12 months.

MINISTER ROBERT:

We opened up for migrants as part of the Singaporean bubble, 61,000, they were visas already issued. From December 1, we will see 162,000 students, visas already issued, 56,000 economic or other economic visas, visas already issued. So in total, about 235,000 migrants in both students and economic migrants, and they’re just existing visas. So, the number wasn’t made up, it was already in play.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Okay. But 235,000 is a far cry from what it was before at 160,000. Is that a situation where those extra workers are needed right now? Are they going to be enough to take the pressure off the current skills shortage?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Don’t confuse the numbers, and it’s a big conversation. So, previously we’d have about 160,000 skilled migrants coming through and a couple hundred thousand student visas, and a hundred thousand seasonal worker or backpacker visas. So, you sort of roll those together you got about 460,000. Students would come and go and backpackers come and go. So, sort of 460, we’re now got 235. So, that’s the disparity. So, the number now is a lot less than what it was. It’s existing visas, with 160,000 students, we’re still short 40 or 50,000 students to where we were.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Okay, but we know that students previously, it was said to be the third largest industry in Australia in terms of its economic value. So, is this trying to build the economic value back through students coming in? Or is it trying to take pressure off wages and potentially inflation as well?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The issue’s not wages or inflation. It’s about, we’ve got an industry that has lost 200,000 students. Those visas have been issued, they’ve been in many ways studying overseas, so it’s about bringing them back again and bringing that industry back up again. Also reflecting that students can generally work 20 hours a week. 15 per cent of our entire hospitality workforce, pre-COVID, and going back a long time has been visa holders. Australians aren’t well known for doing a lot of hospitality work or fruit picking, for that matter. That’s why we have student visas for working 20 hours, it’s why we have backpacker visas, it’s why we have seasonal worker visas. So it does two things in terms of the industry of education and picking up a lot of those unskilled workers.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Given the fact that our migration rates did fall to World War One levels – that’s how low they got – is it a case now where we start to rebuild more quickly because, a: the skills are needed, b: we have opportunity to become a bigger Australia? Does that fly for the Government right now?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Or there’s a C. And the C is there’s never been a better time to get Australians into work. Normally the Federal Government spends $3 billion on our VET – Vocational Educational Training – sector a year. Spent $6.5 billion this year, $5.9 billion last year. The greatest uptake of skilling Australians we’ve seen. We’ve now got the highest number of trade apprentices, 217,000 in training since records were kept in 1963. So we’re doubling down on getting Australians skilled to give Australians the opportunity to get into work, because whilst we’re short, a lot of the migrants from overseas and, of course, workers leave the workforce every year through retirement, a wonderful opportunity to get Australians into work. We don’t want to waste that. Yes, we’ll open our borders to skilled migrants coming through, but the first priority of the Government – this is the option C – is getting Australians skilled and Australians into work.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Let’s go back to those skilled migrants coming in from overseas because given Australia’s track record with COVID, we are seen to be one of the cleanest countries in the world right now, a healthy place to come. The ability for Australia to attract those skilled migrants who can really, if you like, make a genuine benefit economically to Australia long term, it’s almost perhaps a once in generation opportunity. Will Australia take advantage of that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It will, but it will balance it to ensure we don’t disadvantage Australians. You and I, Ross, we want our sons and daughters to have opportunities in Australia. And that opportunity for Australians comes first before anything else. At the same time, we’ve got the National Skills Commission that’s looking at the priority skills we need, looking at the supply domestically, and then that informs us as to what our skilled migration should be. So a lot more technical approach now to what our skilled migration is because we want Australians to have that opportunity to get skill trained and into work.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Because one of the problems is if you can’t get wages to be controlled, if wages take off as a result of skilled or unskilled shortages, then inflation takes off, that might leave the Reserve Bank in a difficult position with interest rates, which again is not going to be politically popular.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, the inflation will only take off if wages growth is happening outside of the economic growth or outside of productivity improvements. So if the economy is growing, productivity is improving, you’d expect to see wages increase and inflation, by virtue of that, won’t go through the roof. And this is what the- Dr Lowe made this point exactly in his speech last week, he doesn’t foresee inflation getting out of control because of the economic growth, unemployment going down and as the economy grows, starting to see productivity lift.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

But this also highlights the importance of opening those international borders to workers coming in from overseas. And indeed, why state borders need to be reopened so there can be a free flow of workers between the various states.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh, it’s fundamental. Labour needs to move freely and evenly to where there’s demand. So does capital. It’s the basis of how economics is going to flow and that’s as much between state borders and internationally. But what we can’t allow, of course, is a huge influx of migrants to displace Australian workers. Now let’s put pay or get rid of the idea that migrants overseas are cheaper. They are not. Any overseas migrant that comes into Australia costs more to bring here and their wages are exactly the same.

ROSS GREENWOOD:

Stuart Robert, many thanks for your time.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great pleasure.

 

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