Summit outlines a mud map but leaves a big gap on how we get out of this mess

The Albanese Government’s jobs and skills summit last week was a clear political win for Labor, but when the backslapping and handshaking has stopped, where are we? 

Sep 06, 2022, updated Sep 06, 2022
Grattan Institute's Danielle Wood (image Supplied, University of Adelaide).

Grattan Institute's Danielle Wood (image Supplied, University of Adelaide).

One of the remarkable outcomes from the summit was the sketching how just how dire the post-Covid situation is and how much detail remains missing on how Australia will move ahead. 

In the Australian vernacular we are pushing a lot of stuff uphill with a very small stick.

Mind you, the Morrison Government was still denying there was a hill or if there was a hill it wasn’t its job to push anything, so we are at least a few steps forward.

But it would only be eternal optimists who would think there were solid resolutions from the summit and that Australia was on the path forward. 

The summit’s success was in deciding where Australia should go without drawing a map of how we get there. It appears as though the Government is still in its “campaign in poetry” phase and not yet in the “govern in prose” mode.

To get into the prose mode it has to start pulling a lot of levers and gears to make things work.

For example, the Grattan Institute economist Danielle Woods’ speech, which was both informative and terrifying, provided the quote of the summit and early access to one of the biggest problems.

“I can’t help but reflect that 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,’’ she said. (Woods’ speech is on the Grattan website and well worth a read.)

Ok, Labor is on board with Woods here and so it should be. They plan to fix this by improving access to childcare. A big tick. It’s scheduled for July next year and will cost $5.4 billion. Everyone applauds.

Yeah, but there is a problem, Where are we going to get the workforce? There are about 6000 vacancies right now in childcare. When the subsidies are brought in another 9500 workers would be needed and it’s not as if it’s an industry people are clamouring to enter.

Ok, we’ll bring them in from overseas. The summit also agreed to lift the skilled migration intake to 195,000 this financial year so that would help. Again, more applause, notably from the business community.

But first of all, we have to find them. Australia’s reputation took a bit of a hit with the border closures and many of those skilled migrants were forced back home and they’re not showing a great willingness to come back. Now we have to compete with all the other countries with the same problem.

So, we may not get anywhere near 195,000 people. We are also starting late and have to gear up the visa processing and hire the people to do it. The Government seemed to shrug this off as procedural but it may prove to be a lot more difficult. 

So, if we can’t lure them in how about we train them ourselves? Albanese has promised $1 billion for free TAFE courses, which is another big tick, this time from the unions.

Great idea. Except research done for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research last year found the shortages of VET teachers and trainers extended to virtually every industry.

So not only do we have to find all the people to do the courses, but the people to teach them.

Let’s just go back to the 195,000 skilled migrants for a second. Where are they going to live?

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Maybe Wellcamp will have a function after all because at the moment there is a critical shortage of housing and people of lower incomes are facing a daunting task to get into the market. Add 195,000 to the mix and real estate agents will be back ordering Mercs.

Albanese has promised to make available up to $575 million to invest in more social and affordable housing and there is speculation it may also pressure superannuation funds to start directing investment into housing.

But either of those would take years to have an impact.

And at the moment the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold $53,900 is a floor that has been in place since 2013, after successive Coalition governments considered this a pretty good tool to help suppress wage growth in Australia.

Labor has agreed that will have to change, but doesn’t really know how, or at what level but suspects it might have to be done industry by industry because lifting it may have the impact of ruling out some of the workers we need, like childcare workers.

Once again, a little detail and strategy would be nice.

Then we have this great new idea about workforce bargaining which has the Liberals and business leaders clutching the pearls and feeling a case of vapours coming on.

It seems a bit half-baked to say we are going to allow multi-business wage bargaining and then not provide details about how this would work. 

This idea has been cooking for months within the ACTU so it wasn’t just a bright idea they found down the back of the couch.

It could be part of the strategy to float the idea and let the debate rage so the Government can see where it can land, but for such a consequential policy change you would have thought there would be more strategy behind it.

While the summit at least had everyone talking, except Peter Dutton, the Government left far too many holes to fill to inspire any confidence.

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