Even The Guardian wants Labor to reset Australian immigration

For years we have watched The Guardian defend Australia’s mass immigration program, arguing that immigration doesn’t suppress wages and doesn’t strain infrastructure, among other things.

The Guardian’s economic poster boy, Greg Jericho, has also likened any criticism of Australia’s immigration program to “racism” and “dog whistling”:

“Immigration – because there are many desperate to hate – must be treated with extreme care by politicians and journalists… The inherently racist parties will seek to use any discussion and any seeming evidence of the negative impact of migrants as fuel to burn their fires of hate”.

With this background in mind, it was heartening to read The Guardian’s Peter Lewis call for a “sober debate about immigration and consider the reality on workers”, while also calling on Labor to reset the immigration program:

Engaging in a sober public debate on this issue has always been politically fraught because it can easily fall into a debate about race. Yet polling on immigration shows the historic hostility to increasing immigration levels is at an all-time low.

Indeed, the public has the sort of nuanced view on the issue that many of their leaders lack. There is majority recognition of the benefits of immigration, even while concern about the impact of population growth – and who actually pays the cost – remains high.

These results suggest the public is up for a discussion on not just the scale, but the structure of our immigration and migrant work visa mix…

After nearly a decade of Tory rule, the situation has deteriorated to the point where a new class of exploited worker, with no citizen or industrial rights, has been used to systemically drive down wages and permanency. Before the borders closed, there were more than a million people on temporary visas with work rights.

There are hardheads in Labor convinced that these issues are off-limits; that the issue of immigration is so entwined with race that any attempt to open debate will be read as dog-whistling.

This would be the ultimate triumph for big business and their government backers: that in driving down wages and conditions they have assumed the role of woke culture warriors fighting for racial intolerance. Capital is colour-blind when it comes to exploiting workers.

There is an alternate view that this is exactly the sort of issue that could end the identity politics of migration by shifting the focus to the economic impacts on ordinary working people.

What would a policy that prioritised secure Aussie jobs look like? It may increase the income threshold for the skilled migration scheme to ensure it wasn’t just lowballing wages. It would invest in TAFE to give Australians the chance to build the skills that are apparently in short supply. And critically, it would reject the expansion of guest-worker programs into more parts of the economy.

More fundamentally, it would recognise those swathes of Labor voters who deserted the party to One Nation weren’t necessarily xenophobic rednecks but people who bore the brunt of the lie that open economic borders would inevitably deliver wealth and opportunity for all. It didn’t then and it still doesn’t today.

Labor thrives when it makes the economic the personal. WorkChoices became more than a fight over an industrial framework; it was a kitchen table discussion about the sort of nation we wanted to be. Building a story of economic security anchored in local jobs and industries seems totally consistent with that project.

Drawing new lines in the sand about the way we engage with global labour markets and supporting local jobs are tangible ways to put the rhetoric of building back better into practise. The political challenge is to take the race out of the debate altogether and make it a question of class.

Hallelujah. The Guardian has finally put away the race card and is making rational, commonsense arguments about immigration.

My only disagreement with Lewis’ salvo is the claim that “historic hostility to increasing immigration levels is at an all-time low”. This is the opposite of the findings of The Australian Population Research Institute’s (TAPRI) latest survey, which found that 70% of Australians want lower levels of immigration (of which 48% want significantly lower or zero immigration) after the pandemic than what existed pre-pandemic:

The overwhelming majority (61%) of Australians do not support importing labour to fill skills shortages and would prefer employers pay higher wages and train Australians:

Whereas the overwhelming majority (69%) of Australians also do not believe that Australia needs more people:

Accordingly, TAPRI author Bob Birrell concludes:

“There has been a distinct hardening of attitudes towards immigration. Before the pandemic there was a rough balance between the share of voters wanting the current numbers to remain the same or to increase and those wanting them to decrease. But as of July 2021, only a small minority want Big Australia levels restored. The majority do not”.

Regardless, Peter Lewis is 100% correct that Labor should seek to reset the immigration program. And here’s how Labor should do it.

First, Labor should require all temporary and permanent work visas (other than the well-regulated Pacific Islands Seasonal Work Program) to be paid at least at the 75th percentile of earnings. This would equate to a minimum salary of $90,500 currently, which would rise over time with earnings:

How much Australians earn

The 75th percentile would set a migrant pay floor of $90,500, which would rise in line with earnings.

Setting a pay floor at this level would ensure that work visas are used sparingly by Australian businesses to employ only highly skilled migrants with specialised skills, not abused by businesses as a tool for undercutting local workers, reducing wage costs, and eliminating the need for training.

Second, and related to the above, Labor should pare back the permanent skilled migrant intake.

The permanent migrant program is dominated by the ‘skilled stream’, which normally sets aside 108,000 places for so-called ‘skilled’ workers:

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this skilled stream was highly dubious. There was no evidence that Australia was experiencing ‘skills shortages’ that warranted such a strong intake.

We also know that Australia’s skilled migrant program has been widely rorted, attracting migrants to areas already heavily oversupplied with workers (e.g. accounting, engineering and IT), with most of these migrants employed at levels well below their claimed skills set.

Instead, the ‘skilled’ program should be phased back to historical levels of around 35,000 visas a year, and be reserved only for truly world-class leaders in their field that Australia cannot foster internally.

Moreover, these highly skilled migrants should have an income pay floor set at least at the 75th percentile of earnings (preferably higher), as for temporary ‘skilled’ migrants (see above).

No longer should Australian employers be allowed to simply ‘grab a migrant’ to fill ordinary positions in the labour market cheaply. Instead, they would have to lift wages to attract workers (thus countering anaemic wages growth), as well as commit to training local workers.

Many migrants also come to Australia on temporary visas with the hope of transitioning to a ‘skilled’ permanent visa.

Therefore, if Australia was to remove the carrot of permanent residency by slashing the ‘skilled’ intake, it would also reduce the flow of temporary migrants, since the two areas are intrinsically linked.

An easy ‘sell’ for Labor:

Promising a smaller, sustainable immigration intake post pandemic would be an easy sell for Labor. All it needs to argue is:

  1. That an excessive flow of migrant workers would displace locals, reducing employment opportunities and lowering wage growth.
  2. That an excessive immigration intake would further drive up demand for housing, pushing prices and rents beyond the reach of locals (especially in Sydney and Melbourne), while also forcing Australians to live in apartments.
  3. That excessive immigration would overrun infrastructure, reducing amenity and liveability, and pushing up the cost of living.
  4. That excessive immigration puts undue strain on Australia’s natural environment.

Most Australians know these claims are true, since they lived it in the 15 years leading up to the pandemic.

Labor should also state that it is merely seeking to lower immigration back toward the historical (pre-2005) average, and that the new lower intake would still be at the higher end of developed nations.

Finally, Labor could ‘sweeten the deal’ for social justice warriors by promising to lift the humanitarian intake by around 10,000 a year. This would automatically counters faux arguments about “racism” and “xenophobia” that could otherwise emerge from the chardonnay left.

In short, Labor must return to its working class roots and represent the interests of regular Australians over inner-city progressives and the business elite.

Leave the pandering to the business lobby to the Coalition.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. The tide is slowly turning on this debate. Thanks MB for all your hard work presenting the facts tirelessly. It’s a tough task when RealEstate.com and Domain.com are responsible for presenting the news. Definitely a breakthrough when The Guardian has shown a change of tack. The article is nuanced and the commenters are informed. Finally time for a proper debate about actual numbers

      • NoodlesRomanovMEMBER

        If they win, they will sh1t their pants. The factions will white-ant any mandate they have, ably spurred on by the MSM that will shine a spotlight on any division (real or otherwise) and LNP in opposition will just lob grenades even when Labor makes no real strategic changes from the LNP business as usual.

  2. Fishing72MEMBER

    It’s a shame that the Guardian is still seeding the discussion with references to racism. It is possible to have a debate about population growth and immigration levels without once acknowledging race at all. When the guardian begins to write about the topic without injecting the toxic ooze of racism gaslighting into the conversation, whether or not it’s framed as enlightened, then I will start to be a true believer in the turnaround. It’s only the proponents of the Big Australia movement who feel the need to mention race as even a peripheral reference in the immigration debate.

  3. I'll have anotherMEMBER

    The comment section on the Guardian is eye opening. There are some real fruit loops out there.

  4. After this weaselly article, I’d still say Guardian lacks the capacity to put unwashed voter concerns ahead of their own enlightened superiority. There’s no admission here, of how breathtakingly corrupt and destructive their preferred Big Australia program has been. They deliberately ignore the TAPRI poll.

    In my view, their fake “debate” is like Labor’s. Keep “permanent” migration twice as high as it should be, 160K, say to voters “look over there”, we reduced “temporary” migration.

  5. SnappedUpSavvyMEMBER

    Unfortunately the only labor minister with balls: Kristina, was given an immigrant seat which will keep her quiet for good

  6. alwaysanonMEMBER

    One place the border being closed has really had an impact is IT salaries and opportunities. Before, employers would rather get a bargain on someone from overseas that already met/knew their laundry list of requirements (a sure thing) rather than employ a local, often at a similar wage, who only knew some of it and would/could learn the rest. Once they lost that avenue some employers have actually started hiring more junior staff and training them – and others have started stealing those afterward to get their usual fully experienced “sure thing” expectations met – leading to wage inflation. I’ve seen people’s market rate go up 50-100% during the pandemic if they learned and have gotten experience with certain things like Kubernetes and job hopped.

    I’m sure many of these employers are desperate to restart immigration.

    • All I can say is that they definitely are. The big employers were holding out on wage rises trying to postpone them as long as possible even if it meant staff attrition. Anecdotally once borders were announced to be open talk about higher salaries is diminishing. There’s a sense if we wait the people will eventually apply now.

      Wage rises are laggy, which means short term blips have to persist to make a huge impact on wages.

      • Charles MartinMEMBER

        Bloke you should be thankful for the IT nerds.
        Surely your relations parties are organised using the technology these so called nerds invent and support and I’m sure the “equipment” used is bought discreetly online as well.

    • I’ve seen a slight raise in contractor day rates due to the pandemic – maybe 10% or so – but the most noticeable change has been the frequency of enquiries as to whether I would like to jump ship for a new role: I currently field 3 to 4 calls or emails per week, more than double what it was pre-pandemic.

      Anecdotally I’ve also heard from at least one very senior contractor who had his day rate at big bank halved at the start of the pandemic, down to around $1k/day in an enterprise architect type role.

      To me the biggest impact of temporary migration in IT has been at the junior and mid-levels, where outsourcers from certain countries could import staff, pay them (say) $50,000 and call them a “senior engineer”. Those companies then compete for contracts against companies employing actual senior engineers on $150k+. Over time this isn’t sustainable for the company with the higher cost base.

      One “big 5” bank I worked for had an outsourced support function for its SAP systems. The company providing the support personnel was using temporary migrants who were paid well under what their roles were worth, and who felt they had no power when asked to do things like work unpaid overtime (night shifts for upgrades, etc.) because they were at the mercy of their employer with regards to their visa and their ability to stay in Australia.

  7. The Guardian mods are quickly deleting the most unhinged, hateful and classist comments. I was about to talk about one that went like
    “We need to import as many foreigners as possible to marginalize rednecks”
    And I was going to say “um, replace them? yeah isn’t that just meant to be a dangerous conspiracy?”

    They think they’re superior. It’s always been the problem with the Guardian class. The enemy class. Superior, but self hating. The true enemy of common people.

    • ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

      As a pro working class/welfare state kinda lefty myself I almost became a subscriber to The Guardian 10 or 12 odd years ago,…But their increasing submission to the decisive identity politics narrative of white privilege had me just saying No.
      They clearly loath my working class children for the colour of their skin (as well as their class) and as for my Boy “they” expect him to feel ashamed, guilty and self loathing of his sex as well!
      Well I say these trendy, inner city wannabes of the bourgeoisie, you can all go and get fked.
      The way “these people” have taken over the Narrative of “The Left” is the primary reason our Democracy is being eroded away and defeated by an increasingly unaccountable and powerful Plutocratic establishment, almost entirely unchallenged.
      Like you say FNG, They are the True enemies of common people.
      As bad as fken Murdoch

    • no the true enemy is the one you think is your funny pal who gives you some crumbs so you think your doing ok when his real mate just got a lambo.

      Some woke nerdi leftist commie pig is seldom the real enemy. Narrow minded, short termist, naive with no street cred. threat, nah. controlled opposition, probably.

  8. kierans777MEMBER

    More fundamentally, it would recognise those swathes of Labor voters who deserted the party to One Nation weren’t necessarily xenophobic rednecks but people who bore the brunt of the lie that open economic borders would inevitably deliver wealth and opportunity for all. It didn’t then and it still doesn’t today.

    Hear, hear!!! It was the same in the US where swathes of middle America bought Trump’s lies that voting for him would see their jobs saved, manufacturing brought back etc. Sadly Trump took advantage of those people for his own agenda.

    I would add a 4th item to your list LVO, about the environmental degradation that mass immigration causes.

  9. “First, Labor should require all temporary and permanent work visas (other than the well-regulated Pacific Islands Seasonal Work Program) to be paid at least at the 75th percentile of earnings. This would equate to a minimum salary of $90,500 currently, which would rise over time with earnings …

    Moreover, these highly skilled migrants should have an income pay floor set at least at the 75th percentile of earnings (preferably higher), as for temporary ‘skilled’ migrants (see above).”

    $90k is still well under what even mid-level IT people are earning for FTE roles.

    If we’re going to argue that it’s necessary to bring someone in from overseas in an IT or engineering role, that person should be paid at the very top of the salary range for what they are being brought into the country to do. Think $150k+. There is no reason to import entry-level or even mid-level IT people.

    • There used to be a requirement for companies sponsoring a person for a 457 visa that they had to show how the nominee’s skills would be transferred to the sponsoring company. That was long ago when immigration had some sort of meaningful control of the program. It’s all tick and grant now.

  10. I don’t think the “sell” for Labour ahead of the next election should include any reference to house prices and affordability. The bulk of the wider electorate has repeatedly shown its colours where house prices are concerned. They want them to stay high. Policies that make housing more affordable ipso facto reduces the wealth of the selfish majority – the existing owners of housing. Better to focus on the negative effects of a Big and Bigger Australia, like traffic congestion and increased commute times, etc. These affect voters more evenly and are aspects of rapid population growth that are on the nose with everyone.

    • Apart from people who have recently bought their houses and are worried about negative equity, homeowners (as opposed to investors) only benefit from high house prices if they intend to sell up and move someplace where housing is a lot cheaper. Most people buy and sell into the same market, so their new house will take everything that they have received for the old one and more, considering the transfer costs. Otherwise, all that they get out of high house prices is higher rates and insurance premiums. A better explanation relates to the politicians’ property portfolios and the wishes of their donors.

      • Homeowners benefit from borrowing against the increased value in their homes.

        “Equity, mate.”

          • Which, fairly demonstrably, is not a high risk.

            I do wonder how much of this real estate madness could have been prevented if borrowing against the increased value in a home triggered a CGT event, like it logically should.

  11. More an example of how bad Oz media have become i.e. decades of dog whistling then with regular testing of (ageing) voter sentiments through the prism of undefined ‘high immigration’ (in fact is high churn over of temporaries when borders are open), that can then be blamed for everything.

    In fact it’s about serving power by dog whistling ‘immigrants’, unions, ‘greenies’, wokeness, BLM, CRT etc. while claiming, without evidence, that immigrants (if no immigrants, then local ‘workers’) are responsible for environmental degradation.

    Good example of how Australia, including media presenting as ‘edgy’, is becoming a fully fledged paradise for radical right libertarians joined at the hip with white nationalists while disappearing climate issues for fossil fuels huggers; we’re masquerading as dumb f*** Americans or British or have we gone the full monty?