‘Divisive’: Jim hits back over migration

·5-min read
Treasurer Jim Chalmers has responded to Peter Dutton’s grievances about Australia’s migration forecasts. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Glenn Campbell

Jim Chalmers has accused Peter Dutton of playing divisive politics after the Opposition Leader aired concerns about the effect Australia’s short-term migration intake could have on the housing crisis.

Speaking to reporters in Brisbane on Friday, the Treasurer hosed down Mr Dutton’s criticism by saying the migration forecasts included in the Albanese government’s second budget weren’t a government target or deliberate policy.

Treasury is forecasting 400,000 people will have migrated to Australia by the end of this financial year and another 315,000 people will have moved here by the end of 2024 — higher than usual numbers following the reopening of Australia’s international border.

Mr Dutton seized on the forecasts to attack the government in question time in parliament this week. He also made the numbers a feature of his budget reply address on Thursday night.

“Amid a housing and rental crisis, our migration numbers will increase massively by 1.5 million people over five years – the highest number in our country’s history and more than the population of Adelaide,” he said in his speech to parliament.

“Without addressing housing supply and infrastructure, where will these people live?”

He claimed the government’s “Big Australia approach” would make inflation worse amid a housing and rental crisis.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has responded to Peter Dutton’s concerns about migration. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Glenn Campbell

Dr Chalmers responded by calling Mr Dutton’s position “inconsistent”, noting the Coalition had previously thrown its support behind getting students and tourists back to Australia more quickly following the resumption of international travel after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

“Once again, Peter Dutton is playing the usual divisive and dishonest politics when it comes to population,” he said.

“It’s not a government policy, it’s not a government target, and it is less cumulatively than what it would have been if their own forecasts a couple of years ago in their budget had eventuated.”

Budget papers note higher forecast for net overseas migration in the near future is largely driven by fewer temporary migrants departing Australia than usual, rather than a greater number of people arriving.

Additionally, net overseas migration was cumulatively almost 500,000 lower than expected prior to the pandemic by the time border restrictions were relaxed at the end of 2021.

Labor is proceeding with plans to increase the cap on the number of visas Australia gives to skilled migrants each year to 195,000, in an effort to solve dire workforce shortages affecting many industries.

The decision was made at last year’s Jobs and Skills Summit and was supported by the Coalition

But the decision has prompted debate about how new arrivals will be able to find homes in Australia given the country is grappling with a dearth of affordable homes and near historic lows of available rentals.

Asked if he thought Mr Dutton was “dog whistling” or if he “had a point” about reducing Australia’s migration intake until housing infrastructure could be shored up, Dr Chalmers said Mr Dutton should vote for Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund.

The government’s signature housing policy — a $10bn investment vehicle whose returns Labor says it will use to build social and affordable housing — has stalled in parliament and won’t be voted on until June at the earliest.

Labor failed in its effort to wedge the Greens — whose support it needs to pass legislation in the Senate without the Coalition on board — by bringing on a vote on the HAFF this week without having struck a deal with the minor party.

The Coalition had already ruled out supporting the HAFF, citing concerns about its use of commonwealth bonds to raise money at a time of high inflation.

The Opposition Leader made migration a feature of his budget reply speech. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The Greens have said Labor needs to come back to the table and negotiate a better deal for renters and make some guarantees about how much money would be spent from the HAFF and how many homes it would deliver.

The issue of housing supply for skilled workers was noted in multiple submissions to a new parliamentary inquiry, commissioned by Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, which is examining the role of permanent migration in “nation building”.

In its submission, the Housing Industry Association said Australia should have an immigration policy that made it competitive in attracting skilled workers and noted the country’s reputation for having very high housing costs acted as a significant detractor for prospective migrants.

Improving housing supply and putting downward pressure of housing affordability will improve Australia’s ability to attract and retain highly skilled migrants, the submission said.

In its submission, the Business Council of Australia said it believed migration was “fundamentally a positive” for Australia and suggested the permanent migration cap should increase to 220,000 in 2023-2024 to enable a “short-term catch up” following the border closure.

The BCA called on the federal government to complement increasing the migration cap by supporting “effective forward planning” of infrastructure and housing by putting pressure on the states to improve their own planning systems and encouraging regional migration.

The council also suggested the skilled worker migration system could be split to separately cater for highly skilled workers and those arriving on shorter-term visas to fill labour shortages.

Even with a stronger short-term outlook, Tuesday’s budget noted total net overseas migration is not expected to catch up to the level forecast prior to the pandemic until the end of 2030.

Migration is forecast to largely return to normal patterns from the 2024-2025 financial year and net overseas migration is forecast to continue at 260,000 in the 2025–2026 and 2026–2027 financial years.

Labor is planning to deliver its strategy to overhaul the federal migration system later this year after a recent review, saying it will ensure the migration system “delivers the skilled migrants needed to address persistent skill shortages.”

About 70 per cent of places in the 2023–2024 permanent migration program will be allocated to the skill stream, and the government will improve pathways to permanency for temporary skilled migrants.