15/04/2010 - 00:00

Parties frame battlegrounds for election

15/04/2010 - 00:00


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A FRESH poll by business leadership group Executive Connection has found that 80 per cent of Western Australian chief executives believe that a looming skilled labour shortage is the priority issue faced by WA companies.

A FRESH poll by business leadership group Executive Connection has found that 80 per cent of Western Australian chief executives believe that a looming skilled labour shortage is the priority issue faced by WA companies.

That is probably no surprise to anyone living and working on this side of the rabbit proof fence, following repeated warnings about the impact of multiple mega-projects competing simultaneously for tens of thousands of skilled workers.

But amazingly in a federal election year, it seems those warnings have not carried to certain offices in Canberra.

The coalition believes the twin issues of asylum seekers and immigration levels are trigger points for the so-called ‘Howard battlers’, who deserted the conservatives in droves at the 2007 federal election.

So with a steady stream of asylum-seeker boats arriving off the WA coast, the coalition last week leapt on Treasury forecasts that Australia’s population could reach 36 million by 2050 as an opportunity to raise concerns about current immigration levels.

Yet by moving to capture support among voters traditionally more aligned with Labor, the coalition also managed to upset its core support base in business.

Firstly, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison sparked widespread consternation by declaring that a coalition government would slash all temporary immigration visas, including 457 visas issued to skilled workers.

His comments were made in the context of an attack on what he termed “spiralling” net immigration rates under the Rudd Labor government to 300,000 a year, a rate he said was out of control.

Mr Morrison said he wanted to see net migration levels returned to those of the Howard government, which averaged less than 140,000 a year.

While he also said immigration should “be tight and focused on skills and productivity”, his comments sparked widespread condemnation from business groups concerned that any reduction in migrant numbers would worsen Australia’s labour shortage.

Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, said Mr Morrison’s suggestion that migration was out of control was “ridiculous”, and noted that intake numbers had actually been cut by 20 per cent during the global financial crisis.

She also warned that restricting the migrant intake below the 40-year average would inevitably mean higher taxes to support an ageing population.

The government also criticised Mr Morrison for overstating the actual intake numbers by including the tens of thousands of temporary arrivals, including students and temporary workers which account for almost two thirds of total arrivals. Its own population forecasts are based on the average permanent net intake rate of about 180,000 per year.

Within two days, Mr Morrison was in full damage control, declaring his comments were not coalition policy but a “simple observation” about the sustainability of population growth.

He also pledged to personally call business leaders to explain why he believed current immigration levels were unsustainable.

Not that it seemed to make the coalition’s position any clearer.

The same day as Mr Morrison said business groups were “more comfortable with the long run average of 180,000 per year”, his leader Tony Abbott told ABC TV that the government’s position was wrong and suggested that even the long-run average was too high.

“It is assuming something like 180,000 net migrants for 40 years and I don’t think that’s the sort of basis on which the government should be proceeding,” Mr Abbott said.

A sidelight to the coalition’s fluctuating position on immigration was its seeming alignment with the views of its least-likely political allies, namely the Greens.

Visiting Perth last week to launch the Greens WA campaign, federal Greens leader Bob Brown also took the opportunity to question the government’s immigration program and population projections.

Pointing to the potential environmental cost of over-population, Senator Brown called for a Senate inquiry to determine the realistic “carrying capacity” of Australia.

He also backed a major overhaul of the immigration program, whereby total immigration numbers could be wound back while “humanitarian” immigration would be increased at the expense of business and skilled migrants.

Putting the blame for the looming skills shortage squarely at the lack of training undertaken by big business and government, Senator Brown went further and said Australia would actually do better to export skilled people to developing countries in the region.

“We need to have big investment in education and skilling in Australia, we should be exporting skills to the rest of the world,” he said. “Why should we be importing skilled people from much poorer countries than our own to become ... the skilled work base for Australia?”

When Mr Morrison last week said the coalition “actually has a very similar view, in some respects, to the Greens” on immigration, it sent alarm bells ringing among arch-conservatives.

Gerard Henderson, executive director of conservative think tank, The Sydney Institute, was mortified, declaring in his weekly newspaper column that “there is no future in senior Liberals, such as Morrison, embracing the Greens on any policy issues”.

He went further, saying that if Morrison’s view on net migration accurately reflected Liberal Party policy “he is the first senior Liberal in the history of the party to advocate lower economic growth in the future”.

The government’s response to all this was a pledge by newly appointed Population Minister Tony Burke to further fine-tune the government’s immigration program so that new arrivals are more often directed to areas where labour shortages are most chronic.

That pledge comes as Immigration Minister Chris Evans prepares to receive the government’s national skills report, which will identify almost 100 occupations considered most in demand.

The report will be critical to a fundamental overhaul of the government’s skilled migration program to ensure the optimum mix of skilled arrivals.

The first part of the overhaul began earlier this year, when the government scrapped its old formula for determining the skills most in demand and cancelled more than 20,000 skilled migrant visas for occupations no longer considered in short supply.

Senator Evans will provide more details of the government’s skilled migration plan at an American Chamber of Commerce in Australia business briefing in Perth on April 27.



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