PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
SATURDAY, 11 DECEMBER 2021
SUBJECTS: MYEFO preview; Scott Morrison’s slogans on migration; Labor’s plans to increase job opportunities and university places; border closures; inflation.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Thanks everyone for coming along today. My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. While good governments take the blame on their own shoulders and pass the credit on to others, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg are just the opposite. The moment the Australian economy is struggling, they're nowhere to be seen. They're racing for a headline the moment there's any chance of an uptick. At the start of this year, Australia had the slowest vaccine rollout in the advanced world. And in the September quarter, partly as a result of that, we reported the worst quarterly growth performance in the advanced world. The third worst number on record for Australia. And that number was bad partly as a result of the government’s failures on vaccines and quarantine. Now inevitably after such an appalling growth figure, the Australian economy will rebound. Eventually, it has to come back and the credit for that will go to the Australian people, not to the Morrison Government. The Morrison Government is a bit like a guy who digs a really deep hole, and then wants people to pat him on the back as he starts to make his way out of it. The fact is that the Australian economy is struggling. Right now we've got real wages going backwards. We've got housing affordability at historic lows, and we have many Australians feeling that their pay packet just isn't keeping up with the cost of living.
We've also had some announcements today around migration. Well, more headlines than announcements, to be honest. Australians are wise to this mob when it comes to migration. People remember in 2019 Scott Morrison going out there and claiming a ‘congestion busting’ cut to migration. And then just months later, Josh Frydenberg bringing down a budget which had baked into it a significant increase in Australia's migration. They want to have it both ways. We have in Australia now record numbers of migrants who don't have a pathway to permanency. We’ve seen under the Morrison Government over-reliance on temporary migration and too few temporary migrants having a way through to becoming permanent migrants and through to becoming citizens. We've also seen huge failures in this government when it comes to training enough Australians. We’ve got 85,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than we did when the Liberals came to office. We've got one in four Australian businesses now saying that they desperately need workers. Labor will respond to the government's migration plan when they have a plan. But Australians need solutions, not spin. They need some real substance when it comes to the critical issue of migration. The Liberals have had two years in order to work out what Australia's migration settings would be as we came out of the COVID lockdowns, and yet we don't have any plan in sight. You would have seen over the last fortnight Labor announcing a series of important initiatives. Alongside our climate plan to create direct and indirect jobs, we've announced hundreds of thousands of free TAFE places, tens of thousands of extra university places. At a time when there's absolute carnage in the university and TAFE sector, Labor would ensure that we were skilling up Australians. Migration isn't just about the headline number. It's about getting the mix right, and that's what an Albanese Labor Government would do. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Josh Frydenberg today said that the states need to keep calm and carry on with reopening, and not to overreact to the Omicron variant. Is he right?
LEIGH: Clearly what we've got in Australia is a federal government which is looking to blame everyone else they possibly can. Australians know that the Australian economy is in much worse shape this year, as a result of decisions made by the federal government on vaccines and quarantine. But certainly there's issues in which I think Josh Frydenberg could be listening to the states. We had Dominic Perrottett say that it is ‘lazy economics’ simply to be relying only on migration rather than skilling up Australians. And so Josh Frydenberg would do well to listen to some of the states, and consider Labor's positive proposal for hundreds of thousands of free TAFE places, and tens of thousands of extra university places.
JOURNALIST: But should the states reopen before Christmas and hold their nerve?
LEIGH: Labor will always defer to the health authorities. We respect the decisions made by state premiers and territory chief ministers. While Josh Frydenberg has directly attacked premiers, Labor has taken the approach that we need to work in the national interest. So no, we'll respect the decisions of the premiers, rather than seeking to second guess and undermine them, as you constantly see from Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree that opening internal borders is key to our economic recovery?
LEIGH: The opening of the internal borders will be a matter for the states and territories. They have the best available health information, and I'm confident they're making those decisions based on the expert health advice.
JOURNALIST: Is it time to put aside the health advice though, and look to economic recovery?
LEIGH: I know that the Morrison Government is desperate to try and deflect attention away from their economic failures, their failures on vaccines and quarantine, and the way in which that is damaged Australia. But I think rather than trying to pick fights with premiers and chief ministers, they'd be better to work with the states and territories, and to focus on sorting out the issues that are clearly the remit of the federal government - providing a sense of certainty to Australians as to what the migration settings will look like. The federal government does have clear responsibility for our external borders, but instead he wants to change the conversation and talk about the internal ones.
JOURNALIST: What’s wrong with the immigration [inaudible]?
LEIGH: We just don't have any detail. All we have today is yet another number, thrown out in an attempt to get a headline or a soundbite. We don't have the detail that would allow Australians to judge what the migration settings will look like. A migration plan has got to talk about our balance between temporary and permanent, between family reunion and skilled migration. There's a lot of good work that's been done on this by the Grattan Institute, the Migration Council, the Scanlon Foundation and others. It's not as though there is a shortage of good ideas out there. But instead now I just feel like we're getting a rewind of the duplicity that we saw in 2019, when the Morrison Government within months was trying to claim credit for both a decrease and an increase in the migration intake.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that if there is an increase, a massive spike in cases of the Omicron variant, that states should reimpose restrictions?
LEIGH: States will make their own decisions based on the health advice that comes in. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the Omicron variant. There is uncertainty over whether it is more contagious, whether it is deadlier, and how it responds to the various vaccines that are on offer. As that information emerges, we'll be in better place to understand how to respond to the Omicron variant. So I don't think any responsible politician would be answering hypotheticals as to how we should react to Omicron. We need to do it based on all the evidence and guided by the health experts.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] about inflation, about whether Australia [inaudible]
LEIGH: We've seen inflation sitting well below the Reserve Bank's target band for much of the last five years. The most recent figure was 2.1 per cent, bringing it just inside the Reserve Bank's target band. But that does contrast with the 6 per cent figure that the United States has had. Certainly at this stage, I don't see evidence that we're going to be experiencing a significant uptick in inflation. And that's supported by the wage forecast the Reserve Bank has produced. The government's own budget had real wages going backwards. Many Australians are feeling the pinch, getting that sense that there's more month than money, that their pay packets simply aren't enough to get them through the expenses that they need to deal with. So until we see sustained wages pressure, the Reserve Bank has said very clearly they intend to keep rates where they are. I think that places Australia in quite a different position from the United States. Any other questions? Thanks everyone, much appreciated.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra