Views from the summit

Reflections and comments

Danielle Wood, in her keynote speech, lists three priorities for future-proofing Australia:

To invest in human capital in school and vocational education. She refers to the serious deterioration in Australian school students’ performance in reading and mathematics.

To make better use of our talent pool, with particular reference to the underutilized talent of women: “… if untapped women’s workforce participation was a massive ore deposit, we would have governments lining up to give tax concessions to get it out of the ground”.

To restore economic dynamism. Businesses have become too relaxed and comfortable. “We should not be a country where firms see more upside in lobbying to get a better deal from governments than from investing in better products and services”.

Catherine Livingstone and Jens Gönnemann, who were both involved in the summit, were guests on last weekend’s Saturday Extra, discussing the jobs of the future. Livingstone emphasizes the need for digital literacy across the population and in industry. Australia lags badly in digital literacy and uptake of artificial intelligence, which are two of the seven megatrends identified by the CSIRO. On these dimensions even the UK is well ahead of Australia. She stresses the distinctions between “jobs”, “skills” and “competencies” – concepts we often conflate. Competencies are basic, developed at an early age, even at pre-school. Skills are built on competencies, and job-readiness is built on skills. There is no quick path to jobs, although immigration can provide some catch-up.

Gönnemann, from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, emphasizes the importance of our manufacturing sector “making complex things”, and the distinction between manufacturing – a broad concept to do with value-adding along a long value chain, and production – the transformation of materials often involving unskilled labour. Both Livingstone and Gönnemann draw attention to the work of Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft as a model for applied research, bringing together the private sector, public sector and universities.

Ross Garnaut puts the case for a full-employment economy. Australia has been there before in the extended period of low unemployment and controllable inflation in the years after the Pacific War: we can get there again. His emphasis is on improving productivity, with measures to encourage the allocation of human and physical capital to areas where Australia has natural advantage. “A long period of steady expansion of the zero-carbon industries will see costs falling and Australia’s comparative advantage strengthening.”

Leonora Rose of RMIT University notes how the jobs summit shifted gender equality from the sidelines to the mainstream. If governments can apply a gender lens across all areas of policy decision-making, they will unlock economic possibilities for women. Women are already being utilised in the economy, but mainly in sectors that are low paid and low status. In relation to women in the economy she urges business and governments “to think less in terms of ‘utilisation’ and more in terms of ‘valuing’”.

Ross Gittins sees in the summit a clear manifestation of this government’s determination to bring unions into the processes of policy development: Breaking news: unions play a central role, for good and ill. This is not to displace business from its seat at the table, but it is a shift from the Coalition’s deliberate policy of de-legitimizing unions. Although only 14 percent of employees belong to unions, they play a crucial role in our labour relations system in determining pay and conditions for almost all workers.

Laura Tingle, in her reflection on the summit, looks at how governments in the past have approached economic policy development. We have tended to emulate other countries’ actual or supposed successes, but now, as in the era of postwar reconstruction, we have to develop our own approach, and the way we handle the related issues of labour relations and immigration will be crucial. The summit illustrates how the Albanese government is going about this task. Commenting on the style of this government she writes:

… you have to go back quite a long way to find prime ministers who grasped the advantages of letting debates play out a bit by themselves, often in ways which actually created room for the government to subsequently move, and had the confidence to let that happen.

The prime minister’s closing remarks are unsurprisingly upbeat. He comments on the diversity of the participants, and thanks participants for creating an atmosphere of respect for one another’s views, noting “the courage of those people who came and spoke out of their usual comfort zone”.

Immigration: can we reverse our decline into a “guest worker” system?

One decision announced at the summit, with support from business lobbies and conditional support from unions, was an increase in immigration from 160 000 to 195 000 a year.

Writing in Independent Australia Immigration policy dominates Jobs Summit day two – former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi points out that this will result in only a small increase in net migration. That’s because most of the extra places will go to people who have been living here many years, as the government reduces the number of people on temporary visas living in “immigration limbo”.

Rizvi’s article reproduces the statement he made to the summit, in which he warns that “we are now barrelling towards becoming a fully-fledged low skill guest worker society”. In this regard he points particularly to the appalling treatment of immigrants working in the rural sector, and warns that unless unions are given a strong and formal role in protecting migrant workers, we will fail.

Brendan Coates and Tyler Reysenbach of the Grattan Institute, writing in The Conversation, describe the policy choices our government must make in relation to immigration. The first is the annual income threshold above which employers can sponsor skilled workers to fill temporary skill shortages, which is presently $53 900. They point out that any threshold below around $70 000 tends to attract workers who do not advance in pay, implying that such immigrants do not really count as “skilled”. Unions want the threshold lifted to $90 000, while the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants it lifted to only $60 000. The second policy challenge is the need to provide better pathways to permanent residency for temporary immigrants. Our practice of offering an uncapped number of temporary immigration places, while fixing the number of permanent visas, is unsustainable, and is incompatible with the government’s stated aim of shifting to more permanent immigration.

For those seeking clarification of immigration numbers and trends, under different categories, Abul Rizvi, always one to explain numbers clearly, has an informative article Jobs Summit an opportunity to fix immigration policy in Independent Australia, and a 7-minute interview on ABC News Radio covering the same ground: Australia's permanent migration intake looks set to rise, both made in the lead-up to the summit.

In the ABC interview Rizvi applauds the government’s decision to put around 20 000 asylum-seekers, presently on temporary protection visas, on a pathway to permanent residency, but he notes that there are still another 110 000 asylum-seekers left in uncertainty, without the right to work and with limited social support. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre reminds us that those seeking asylum need the right to work, study and rebuild.