LYNDAL CURTIS: Welcome to Capital Hill, where the attention’s been split today between Canberra, Perth and Indonesia as the regional processing centre gets discussed in Canberra but not necessarily in Indonesia and the Prime Minister has announced a review of the way the Goods and Services Tax is distributed between the states. To discuss these many issues and maybe some more, I’ve been joined from Melbourne by Labor’s Kelvin Thomson and from Adelaide by the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome to the program.
KELVIN THOMSON: Good afternoon, Lyndal.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon Lyndal, g’day Kelvin.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon Birmingham, states tend to complain when their economies are doing well and they see some of their proceeds going to the states that aren’t doing so well. Does Colin Barnett have any different concerns to the concerns that states like New South Wales and Victoria have had in the past?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh look, state governments have always had arguments and concerns about the ‘carve up’ of Commonwealth funds. That’s nothing new and this review’s probably unlikely to resolve that either. In fact, this review really shows in many ways the slightly shambolic approach the Government takes to tax matters, be it the allocation of tax or the collection of tax. We have a tax summit coming up later this year and yet not all taxes are on the agenda for that tax summit. Now we have the ‘allocation of tax’ issue here with the GST and rather than make decisions the Government has shunted it off to a new review process. There are already, of course, processes within the Commonwealth Grants Commission structures for there to be reviews, for there to be appeals by the states, but they’ve decided to put a review on top of those processes. I understand that governments will want to respond to the complaints of premiers from time to time but I think this Government has a tendency to want to have conferences and reviews and discussions but occasionally they need to take some decisions.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we can move on to immigration matters… Kelvin Thompson, the talks in Bali on the Bali Process [Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime] aren’t discussing the Prime Minister’s proposal for a regional detention centre. Is that proposal now effectively dead in the water?
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, the talks are continuing but the essential thing is that we get a regional approach to processing and dealing with issues of asylum seekers and if we can get some regional cooperation around these matters, we will still be able to take steps forward.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But there doesn’t appear to be any progress on getting that centre up and running or indeed getting the support you’d need from the region for it.
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, I think the important thing is that we get other countries to acknowledge that this is a regional issue which requires a regional approach and I remain hopeful that that will be the case and that other countries will be engaged in assisting us to deal with this problem.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon Birmingham, is that regional support the cornerstone in starting to deal with the problem of asylum seekers and don’t you need that regional support rather than just saying ‘we’ll send asylum seekers off to Nauru’.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, the Coalition’s always acknowledged that regional support is critical. We spent a lot of time in government working with Indonesian authorities to ensure that we could stem the flow of boats and stem it at its source and it wasn’t just a ‘one trick pony’ solution to have offshore processing. There were a whole suite of solutions the Coalition developed to ensure that we could stop the flow of boats. Now, the concern here is that somebody like Kelvin has probably never really supported the regional processing centre. The truth is that Julia Gillard’s probably always known that the regional processing centre would never actually come to fruition. We could advance this debate by her acknowledging that East Timor is dead against it, that in fact the East Timorese foreign minister has snubbed this discussion in Bali and gone off to Fiji instead, so clearly they’re not interested in engaging in the topic, and that we would get a whole lot further ahead in developing a decent regional framework and regional support if the Government were pursuing a policy that might actually have a positive outcome and Nauru’s the sensible object there. We’ve done it before as a country. They stand ready and willing to do it again. All Julia Gillard has to do is pick the phone up.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But wasn’t Nauru… wasn’t the fact that asylum seekers went to Nauru under the Coalition Government just, as the Government says, a detour point on their way back to Australia, because quite a few of them came back to Australia as refugees?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Whether or not a number of those who went to Nauru ended up qualifying is not the point. The point is that as part of the whole suite of measures, the offshore processing on Nauru, the way that visa applications were handled, the regional integration with Indonesia, all led to a policy outcome that stemmed the flow of boats. That’s the outcome we want to seek to stop, of course, thousands of people putting their lives at risk by undertaking that journey and to allow Australia to undertake a humanitarian program where we control taking the most needy and most worthy people from around the refugee camps of the world rather than simply having to deal with those people who turn up on our doorstep.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we can go now to the broader issue of migration, both major parties at the last election talked about slowing migration but the latest figures show that it’s slowing anyway.  Kelvin, you’ve been an outspoken critic of high migration levels. Are you happy with the sorts of levels of migration we’re seeing now?
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, we’re still running a very high migration program, Lyndal. The figure that was announced yesterday 185,000 in the course of the last 12 months.  Now, that is slower than the previous two years but it’s a higher number than any other number for the preceding 30 years and indeed it’s double the sort of number that we saw back in the 1990s.  At 185,000 per year we would still end up with Australia at 36 million by 2050. I believe that is too high and the truth is when you add that in with the natural increase in our population, which is now of the order of 160,000 each year, that means we’re growing by 345,000 people every year. That’s nearly a thousand people every day, 40 people every hour, it means that you’ve got to build a new house effectively every five minutes so it’s no wonder that we’re not making progress on issues like homelessness and indigenous housing.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, you come from a state which has advertised in the past to get people to move there. Do you have a different perspective on migration because of where you live?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh look, I certainly think there is capacity for Australia, especially for states like South Australia but for regional centres as well, to absorb more people. That said, as Kelvin highlights, we do have a very high population intake at present. The Coalition went to the last election advocating and proposing that we would in our first term settle at a net migration figure of around 170,000 people. That’s somewhat lower than the figures that have been released indicate at present. Scott Morrison gave an outstanding address to the National Press Club today where he again highlighted the approach the Coalition took to the last election of broadening the scope of the Productivity Commission to allow it to set target bands for immigration into Australia not unlike those that we set for interest rates by the Reserve Bank, so that we actually have an independent body that can assess our workplace needs, our humanitarian obligations and the infrastructure challenges we have, some of which Kelvin mentioned, and make decent recommendations that guide the strategy of our immigration intake. At present, it’s all too politicised in many ways and doesn’t take enough consideration of many of those issues that cities like Sydney and Melbourne in particular face of really genuine infrastructure pressures.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is the problem, though, certainly in the next couple of years – and I’ll ask this both of you, Kelvin first, then Simon – that unemployment is coming down, there will certainly be pressures on the labour force looking for skilled workers, looking for workers particularly in states like Western Australia and that you either have to spend a lot of money getting people back into the workforce or you import them through 457 [Temporary Business (Long Stay) – Standard Business Sponsorship] visas and things like that.  Kelvin, isn’t that the dilemma and isn’t it actually easier to import workers?
KELVIN THOMSON: Well, it’s certainly not cheaper, Lyndal. The truth is that we have 5 per cent unemployment. We don’t have full employment. In a suburb like Broadmeadows, just to the north of my electorate, we have 15 per cent unemployment. That is simply too high. We have a lot of people who are on Disability Support Pensions. The Prime Minister has said, and I agree with her a hundred per cent, that we need to lift our participation rate and bring people who are presently outside the workforce into the workforce.  Now, you don’t do that by running a skilled migration program. You do that by focusing on educating, training, providing people opportunities for people who are presently outside the workforce and bringing them in as a matter of priority.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And Simon, do you think there are enough people in Australia to meet the labour force needs?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, Lyndal, we absolutely need to do all we can to ensure that our education and training systems are geared towards generating people with the skills necessary for the growth parts of our economy and indeed, as Kelvin talked about, to directing people who may be currently out of the labour market, be they on Disability Support Pensions or otherwise, back into the labour market by helping them establish skills in areas of skills shortage, but we also need to be smarter about the way we use our immigration program and again in the speech that Scott Morrison gave today he highlighted the perverse example of cooks and chefs which existed on our skills shortage list for a number of years that allowed people to come into Australia to train to become skilled cooks or chefs, yet the final outcome was that many of those people, upon qualifying for permanent residency, have changed career paths, have not gone on.   We have taken cooks and chefs off the skills shortage vacancy list, yet we still have a shortage of skilled cooks and chefs, so a sort of perverse cycle of failing to actually address the real problem that was there in the first place and the same exists, of course, in the mining industry and a raft of other sectors, so we need very clever strategies and the approaches of our immigration system at present do appear to be failing to help complement the education and training systems in meeting those skills shortages for the future.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And gentlemen, that’s where we’ll have to leave it for today. Kelvin Thomson and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.
KELVIN THOMSON: Good to talk with you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure. Thanks Lyndal, Kelvin.