The head of a leading business group has hit back at calls to cut immigration, warning skills shortages are emerging in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and defence and reducing the program risks economic growth.
Innes Willox, Australian Industry Group chief executive and chairman of the Migration Council of Australia, called for migration to be maintained at “no less than its current level of 190,000’’ to maintain steady population growth.
“Reducing migration risks reducing Australia’s long-term growth and would send a terrible signal to people around the world about Australia being open for business,’’ Mr Willox said.
Tony Abbott ignited a population debate last week, calling on Malcolm Turnbull to halve Australia’s immigration program and accusing frontbench colleagues of lacking the courage to take the issue on as a key part of tackling the rising cost of living.
Mr Abbott suggested the Turnbull government should scale back the annual intake to 110,000 to address low wage growth, housing prices and social integration that he said had become critical issues because of historically high immigration levels.
But the former prime minister was rebuked by Scott Morrison, who said the permanent migrant intake was the same as it had been when he was immigration minister in Mr Abbott’s government and cutting the intake by 80,000 would cost the budget $4 billion to $5bn over four years.
Mr Abbott said Mr Morrison was “captured’’ by his department.
Mr Morrison was supported by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who said he thought the current settings were right.
Writing in The Australian today, Mr Willox, who also chairs the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, says Australia does not have a population problem “but we do have a skills problem and we do need to get much better at planning our cities, regions and our infrastructure’’. He says a Productivity Commission review of Australia’s migration had found the greatest benefits to the community came from younger, highly skilled migrants. Mr Willox also pointed to a “heating-up’’ labour market with trend employment increasing by 393,400 jobs in 2017.
“Education and training systems have fallen short of delivering the trained workers our economy needs in the right places, at the right time, and there is no sign of this changing materially over the next five years,’’ he writes.
“This means our economy will continue to require a significant supply of skilled labour through the various temporary and permanent visa streams.’’
Mr Willox said federal and state governments had to get education right and restore confidence in the system by being more responsive to industry needs and adequately funding the VET sector.
AiGroup’s survey of chief executives found 16 per cent of manufacturing leaders ranked skills shortages as their top impediment to growth this year. Members in the services sector were also concerned about skills shortages.
“In order to increase Australia’s living standards, we must continue to attract the best and brightest from overseas. Skilled migrants complement Australian workers by bringing specialist knowledge that provides bigger benefits and, by deepening our entrepreneurship, innovation and international linkages,’’ he said.
Karla Spetic was aged nine in 1993 when she and her mother, Vesna, packed their life in a suitcase and sought refuge in Australia as Dubrovnik was besieged during the Croatian war of independence.
Twenty-five years later, Ms Spetic, 35, has a self-titled fashion label, one of 620,000 immigrants who own a business in Australia.
Ms Spetic believes much of the criticism of immigration debate is propelled by fear. “I think it’s pure ignorance and I think it’s people like that who have that view are just living in fear,” she said.
“We all need to just really be open-minded and travel and understand different cultures and understand that they’re just people like us too and they’ve got so many great things to offer.
“We all come from somewhere — that’s the beauty of being Australian.”