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Migrants key to Australia’s economic recovery says federal opposition

1 December 20200 comments

Federal Labor frontbencher Clare O’Neil has called for sweeping changes to Australia’s immigration system as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of society and industry to speed up the nation’s recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The member for Hotham, in south east Melbourne, said that the pandemic gives Australia a once-in-a-generation chance to attract the world’s best and brightest minds.

In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra, Ms O’Neil said the economy would never return to its pre-COVID structure.

“We have a chance here, one that comes along maybe every 50 years, to think through a bunch of nation-shaping ideas with a blank piece of paper,” she said.

While immigration had flat lined during COVID-19, Ms O’Neil argued Australia’s success in combating the coronavirus offered a one-off chance to overhaul the nation’s migration program.

“Who wouldn’t want to be living in Australia right now? There is division and disease in almost every other country in the world,” she said.

But she argued the migration system had undergone “a radical transformation without a public policy conversation” and was now skewed too heavily towards temporary workers.

Ms O’Neil said the number of unskilled migrants had doubled to 800,000 over the past 15 years, while temporary skilled migrants brought the combined total to close to one million.

She said changes were needed to allow for more skilled permanent migrants into the country to boost manufacturing, science and technology.

“This is not dog whistle. I am arguing here in favour immigration, strongly. And this is not about race. I’m not making any comment about where migrants come from,’ Ms O’Neil said.

“I’m saying that we need to make an economic transformation in our country, and that immigration can help us do it – but it’s not going to happen if we just go back to the way things were before,” she said.

With Australia’s population set to shrink by 0.8 per cent from 2019 to 2021, she called for long-term guarantees for higher-skilled migrants looking to make Australia their home.

“No world-class scientist is going to uproot their family and come to Australia to have to leave again in two years. It’s just completely unfeasible,” Ms O’Neil said.

“These are the migrants that I’m speaking about as very desirable for Australia. There are very few of them coming into the country by comparison,” she said.

“We’re not presenting ourselves as an attractive option to those people.”

Ms O’Neil rejected the idea government could help the economy by getting out of the way, saying that government intervention in science and technology was key to economic recovery.

“Australia’s economy has been in a funk for a decade. For a generation, economic doctrine in Australia has had a hands-off approach. But autopilot is not going to fix the economic challenges we face,” she said.

The speech was based on Ms O’Neil’s podcast ‘The Long View’, in which she spoke to more than 60 political, economic and academic figures.

Ms O’Neil’s call comes after RBA governor Philip Lowe said Australia needed an influx of skilled migrants to kick start the economy.

“The fast population growth of recent decades has been a major factor shaping our economy,” Dr Lowe told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia,” Dr Lowe said.

“It has underpinned our relatively fast growth in GDP compared with other advanced economies,” he said.