ABC MELBOURNE MORNINGS WITH RAF EPSTEIN
THURSDAY, 26 OCTOBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Inflation; Rate of immigration to Australia; Housing Australia Future Fund; Rental inflation.
RAF EPSTEIN (HOST): Inflation is higher than people thought it would be. It's not as high as last year, according to the ABS figures yesterday, but it's high enough, high enough to have many people thinking you will get another rate rise in two weeks' time. And, of course, part of inflation is rent, and rents are going up faster than at any time in the last 14 years. Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Treasury. He's part of Anthony Albanese's Government and one of the MPs in Canberra. Andrew Leigh, good morning.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CHARITIES, COMPETITION, TREASURY AND EMPLOYMENT ANDREW LEIGH: Morning, Raf. Great to be with you.
EPSTEIN: Do we have too many people coming?
LEIGH: I think we've got some catch-up migration, which is flowing from the borders being closed during the pandemic. You speak to businesses around the country and they're crying out for more workers. Many of those workers Raf are then unlocking opportunities for Australians. The genius of the Australian migration system, which makes it better than the migration system in many other countries, is that we’ve brought in workers to fill gaps rather than to supplant existing workers. And in many parts of Australia, we've still got job vacancies exceeding the number of people who are unemployed. It is quite extraordinary to still have unemployment below 4 per cent. It's only happened in 19 months since the current unemployment series began in the late 1970s, and 16 of those 19 months have been under this government.
EPSTEIN: Have we got the conversation going though? The consistent feedback you get, not from everyone, is that no one asked me if I wanted this many people coming this fast. Do politicians, do governments need to talk more about who's coming and why they're coming?
LEIGH: Yeah, I think it's important that we have that ongoing conversation and certainly the various reviews of the migration settings that have taken place since we came to office have engaged with the public at large. Some of this is our universities reopening to international students. Part of it is tourists returning to Australia, and that again creates jobs for Australians. Part of it, too, is in the construction sector. So, one of the reasons that we've struggled to build enough houses is when you talk to builders, they say they can't get enough skilled workers. So, some of those migrants coming in to build houses, not just to live in them.
EPSTEIN: But we've got that terrible problem, right? We've got not enough people to build houses, but we've also got so many people coming, we don't have enough houses. How do you explain that dilemma? Or how do you fix that?
LEIGH: Well, we're fixing it through the Housing Australia Future Fund, which has passed the Parliament despite the opposition of the Liberals, but with the support of Greens and Crossbenchers. That's a welcome investment in Australian homes. 30,000 social and affordable homes.
EPSTEIN: Pretty long-term, though, isn't it?
LEIGH: Building houses doesn't happen overnight, Raf, but you've got to get going on this job. And I thought it was pretty remarkable that the Liberals, despite acknowledging that housing supply was an issue voted against the biggest housing supply measure in decades.
EPSTEIN: But that's not going to fix the rent problem, is it? To be honest, people, if they hear the rent inflation figure around five, six, 7 per cent, they'd be thinking they're really lucky if their rent is only going up that much. What do you say to someone whose rent is going to keep on going up significantly every year for the next few years?
LEIGH: Well, in our last budget, we put in place the largest increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance in 30 years. That had a tangible impact on rent inflation. In the inflation figures that came out yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that rents would have increased 2.5 per cent without that measure. In fact, they increased 2.2 per cent. And we'll see the full impact of that higher Commonwealth Rent Assistance flow through in the next quarter. You can see, too, in the inflation figures, our energy rebates and our childcare subsidies playing a tangible part and putting downward pressure on prices in the face of a global inflation challenge.
EPSTEIN: I wanted to ask about both the electricity and childcare. You're right, and the Treasurer was pointing out yesterday things didn't go up nearly as much. And the ABS is sort of saying that is because the government did something. But is anyone going to notice? Like, if electricity is going up, electricity is going up, childcare might drop for a month, but it's going to go up long term. Is anybody noticing what you're doing?
LEIGH: I don't expect everybody to notice every percentage point of every Bureau of Statistics release, but Australians should know that they have a government that has their back. Electricity prices would have gone up 18.6 per cent without the energy rebates. They went up 4.2 per cent. Childcare costs actually decreased 13.2 per cent in the September quarter. Without them, they would have increased 6.2 per cent. So, the government is doing what it can while also delivering the first budget surplus in 15 years. We've got a strong economy. We're still managing far better than many other countries around the world through this global cost of living crisis.
EPSTEIN: I'll go to calls in a moment 1300 222 774. Andrew Leigh, I can guarantee you people are going to ring and say, "I am not feeling any of the benefits, I am only feeling the pain. And when the government talks to me about population, they only talk at me, they don't listen". So, a genuine serious question is the government listening to people about listening to people who are already here when they say, we don't need people there, we need them over here, do you listen when you talk to the nation about population?
LEIGH: Absolutely, Raf. I'm out there on street stalls, engaging with constituents, putting on community forums. These issues come up frequently. They come up from people who are hesitant about migration. They come up also from businesses and from people who are keen to get more migrants in, people who haven't seen their loved ones in years. People who are working in the tourism sector, people who are working in the housing construction sector. The old line from economists is that migrants aren't just mouths to feed, they're also muscles to build and minds to inspire. Australia has done very well benefiting from our multicultural story. You're totally right, though. We need to maintain that public conversation. Without it, if we lose the public support, we could go the way of some countries in Europe which have seen a backlash against migration.
EPSTEIN: Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Treasury, part of Anthony Albanese's government. Thanks for joining us this morning.
LEIGH: Real pleasure, Raf. Thank you.