Politics Opinion

Jobs Summit should not be a rubber stamp for neoliberalism

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Treasurer Jim Chalmers greets representatives at the 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Jobs and Skills Summit will give the opportunity to confront the failures of neoliberalism, especially the belief that rapid population growth is required for our prosperity, writes Kieran Simpson.

THE JOBS AND SKILLS SUMMIT that the Albanese Government is currently holding will give a chance for the new Government to assess where we’re at after the last nine years of Coalition neglect and incompetence.

It is time to review the state of Australia's skills, training, workers' rights, wages and other issues to lead to a more productive workforce. One that increases living standards for all Australians. The Summit, however, should not be a fait accompli, or a rubber stamp for the wishes of big business. It needs to be a genuine, open discussion. It will need to challenge neoliberal beliefs. After a 40-year failed experiment, voters are tired and want our leaders to be open to new ideas and solutions.

One outcome that the various business lobbyists will be pushing hard for at the Summit is a return to the pre-COVID-19 levels of permanent immigration at ~200,000 people per year. The Labor Government needs to strongly consider the impact such a decision will have on workers' wages, housing affordability, the strain on infrastructure and services (such as health), carbon emissions, water and our environment — and reject the idea.

The main argument that business lobbyists use is that we have skills shortages.

However, as Crispin Hull recently pointed out in The Canberra Times:

‘So why then, for more than 20 years, have Australian governments thought the solution to “skills shortages” has been to ramp up immigration? It began in 1999 when the Howard Government more than doubled immigration from around 70,000 to 160,000 or 200,000 a year to meet “skills shortages”. And still, 23 years later, we have “skills shortages”.’

As Hull also continues to argue, the real reason is to import cheap labour to drive down wages. As secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Sally McManus has also argued, it’s really to exploit workers.

Many economists such as Leith Van Onselen from Macro Business have argued that relying on rapid population growth via mass immigration is lazy economics. It doesn't drive prosperity as the most prosperous countries have a small population. Mass immigration has more than likely contributed to productivity collapse. The businesses that profit effectively privatise any gains from increased consumption, while socialising the losses.

Governments and citizens are forced to bear the cost of increased waste/pollution coupled with increased burdens on health services, roads and schools. All while the same businesses who profit pay very little tax to contribute to offset these costs. We are therefore left in a state of perpetual debt-fueled infrastructure catch-up.

After over a decade of stagnant wages, workers have finally started to see wages increase. This is thanks to the closing of the international borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite every attempt by the former Morrison Government to take credit for the significant fall in unemployment, the real reason is that a tight labour market is good for workers. It also improves the ability of unions to argue for improved rights and conditions. Restarting mass immigration will undo all those gains.

The long-delayed State of the Environment (SoE) report in 2022, just like the SoE report in 2016, highlights the effect rapid population growth has had on our environment. Scientists have known for decades about the link between population, consumption and carbon emissions. We need to actively engage with the population issue if we want to keep global warming below two degrees.

This is not an “either/or” problem. We need to drastically reduce consumption. But population growth cancels out reductions in consumption, or energy intensity as more people “consume the slack”. Tackling the “demand side” needs to become part of the public conversation.

In a time where affordable housing is chronically in short supply, where are these tens of thousands of extra workers going to live? What happens to existing workers forced out of rentals? What is the impact on housing affordability? None of these questions has been adequately answered by the pro-growth lobbyists.

If there are genuine skills shortages that need to be filled due to the gutting of TAFE and training, then the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) should be raised to 10 per cent above the median full-time wage as per the submission of the ACTU. Seeing the TSMIT at ~$90,000 per annum should tip market forces in favour of local Aussie workers while allowing businesses to fill genuine shortages. The rapid repair of TAFE and other training programs is a must to provide the skills of the future.

Finally, the Labor Government must listen to voters who do not support a restart of mass immigration. Labor is meant to be the party for the workers and for the voters. This is the social contract of democracy that gives governments the licence to operate. With an all-time primary vote low and the rise of well-resourced Independents, Labor would be unwise to ignore voters and continue to force rapid population growth on the citizenry.

People should write to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Treasurer Jim Chalmers, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to raise these concerns. Now is the turning point to begin to undo the damage to our country and its people. Big Australia is not in our interests and it’s time that we end it.

Kieran Simpson is a software engineer in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @kierans777.

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