The Jobs and Skills Summit over two days in Canberra this week grew out of testing times, and was held in the shadow of a pandemic stretching into its third year. The social and psychological costs have been high, and then there is the economic impost of a $1 trillion debt hampering the government’s desires to enact any number of social policies.
High inflation and stagnant wages growth have crimped the earnings of many Australians, as attempts to recover from COVID’s economic impact are bedevilled by a labour and skills shortage brought on partly by the closure of international borders and the loss of migrant workers. Businesses are reeling and governments are struggling to deliver fundamental services in key sectors such as health, aged care and education. Moreover, years of political inertia, suspicion and division have combined to produce a workplace relations system that cannot deliver the higher wages required to attract people to increasingly crucial industries such as aged care and childcare.
A mood for change brought Labor into government. But its record-low primary vote suggests this happened without great enthusiasm from the electorate. All this has placed the onus on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his team to make positive changes, both in tone and in the policies they offer Australians, and this summit was their first chance to show how that might work.
In bringing together more than 140 business leaders, unions, politicians and interest groups, Albanese tried to bump participants out of their comfortable positions and called on them to agree on important, but difficult, reforms. “We have not gathered here to dig deeper trenches on the same old battlefield,” he told the participants.
Professor Ross Garnaut, of the University of Melbourne, laid out the scale of the opportunity presented by the summit when he noted that in meeting previous challenges in the 1940s and the 1980s, Australia had “laid the foundation for several decades of prosperity”. He said: “We have that chance now.”
Refreshingly, participants appeared to embrace the spirit of opportunity. There was disagreement, of course, particularly when Employment Minister Tony Burke announced that multi-employer agreements would be permitted under the new industrial relations regime – a policy that prompted Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox to worry about strikes with “the potential to shut down key parts of our economy”.
All agreed, however, that some reform to enterprise bargaining was needed. The government shifted too, expressing its willingness to simplify the better off overall test, known as the BOOT. Designed to ensure workers making agreements did not see their conditions fall below the minimum guaranteed by the relevant industry award, it has in recent years become hopelessly complex.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil announced a rise in the number of permanent skilled migrants allowed into Australia from 160,000 to 195,000 for the financial year, and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the increased intake. Unions remain concerned that use of migrant workers can drive wages down overall, and its push for a $91,000 minimum wage for temporary migrant workers is not favoured by business, but the ACCI concedes the current $53,000 minimum should increase.
As much as these workers are urgently required, Treasurer Jim Chalmers has acknowledged they are only a part of the puzzle. “We’ve got labour and skill shortages right around Australia, and we can’t ignore them. But not in isolation from housing, and not as a substitute for training or for getting more people participating in the workforce.”