Feds must resist visa push from business

Opinion piece by Bob Birrell, published in  The Herald Sun, 26 April 2021

With the recovery from the Covid recession, employer interests have been pressing the government for more migrants.

This lobbying is coming from representatives of employers such as the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, and from industry associations relying on low skilled workers, including the hospitality and horticulture industries.

Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing on Migration (or at least its Coalition members) has endorsed these concerns.

These lobbyists are responding to the collapse of Australia’s annual net overseas migration intake of around 250,000 since the pandemic began.

All assert the decline in overseas student enrolments is a major contributor to this collapse. All claim it is disrupting their access to both skilled and unskilled migrant workers.

They want the Commonwealth government to accelerate the inflow of students and other temporary migrants. As well, they want the abolition of restrictions on their employment, including removal of labour market testing, and the creation of new temporary visa categories which tie migrants to work within specific industries.

The Joint Standing Committee even recommends that places be reserved on flights to Australia and in quarantine facilities for skilled migrants.

Is this advocacy a prelude to major Coalition immigration initiatives? Let’s hope not, because if implemented the consequences will be ugly.

If Australia legislates to create visa which tie migrants to particular industries it will reverse one of the founding principles of our nation — that all residents should be employed on fair wages and conditions.

Also, do we want the overseas student industry to return to its pre-pandemic state, when universities acted like private corporations, maximising revenue from overseas students with scant regard for their pubic role of educating and training Australian students?

By 2018, overseas students made up 41 percent of all commencing students at Melbourne university. At Monash University it was 44 per cent.

It is true that most of Australia’s previous 250,000 NOM derived from temporary rather than permanent migrants. This is because far more temporary migrants were entering Australia than leaving each year.

The result was that by the beginning of the Covid emergency in March 2020 there were 1.5 million temporary migrants in Australia. About 541,000 of these were students at all education levels.

By late February 2021, the number of temporary migrants in Australia had fallen to the still huge number of 1.1 million, with much of the decline due to students. Their numbers had fallen to 441,000.

Do we really need more?

Let’s start with the claim that overseas students are essential to restore a flow of skilled migrants. This is a myth.

Most of the growth in university enrolments came in the business faculties, particularly accounting. These courses were dumbed down to accommodate overseas students with limited academic and English language skills. Only a minority have been able to secure professional level jobs in Australia.

For many, (especially those from the Indian Subcontinent) the value of an Australian degree was that it provided access to the Australian labour market while studying and, in time, a permanent residency.

The Australian government has facilitated this by granting two-year temporary graduate visas to all those graduating from an Australian university. This visa allows a two-year stay in Australia with full work rights.

By late February 2021 there were 102,765 of these temporary graduate visa holders in Australia, up from 96,819 in March 2020. They are in addition to the 441,000 students in Australia as of February 2021.

It will be good to see a recovery in overseas student enrolments. But if it is to occur, it should be on the basis of the quality of their training rather than the access it gives to the Australian labour market.

As to the lower skilled labour markets, a revival of temporary migrant flows, especially students, will boost the relevant workforce. But in doing so it will reinforce employers’ dependence on migrant labour.

The hospitality and horticulture industries illustrate the point. The working conditions and wages in these industries reflect this dependency. Employers do not need to offer jobs attractive to domestic workers.

The tied visa proposals from these industries will make this situation worse. The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association wants a special visa which will limit employment to the hospitality industry.

The National Farmers Federation has for years advocated a similar visa that restricts recipients to work in horticulture. In other words, both want a conscripted workforce.

Governments and employers need to be reminded how contrary these arrangements are to our labour market traditions.

The focus of government should be to put the onus back on employers to make employment in these industries attractive to locals. If this means that coffee or garlic costs a bit more, or the jobs are automated as with robot baristas, then so be it.

Bob Birrell is the Head of the Australian Population Research Institute

Why Treasury migration forecasts matter – and why they’re unconscionably high

Stephen Saunders

By no means did the 2019 federal election arrest our radical immigration economy. The Coalition was set to crank it higher. Labor and Greens would have gone higher again.

In calendar year 2017, net overseas migration to Australia was nearly 242,000. The preliminary tally for 2018 climbs to 248,000.

Now the Treasury is ‘assuming’ net migration to top 270,000 in 2019 and 2020. Yet permanent migration is dropping by 30,000, to 160,000. This apparent contradiction is partly explained by the liberal use of bridging visas.

The long haul is the biggest story. Once only since federation has Australia surpassed 270,000 in net migration. Before 2007, even 200,000 was unknown. How come the figures have gone so high? Why are they barely remarked? And should we stay the course.

High population growth is at the behest of ‘GDP growth’

Technically, net migration is a mouthful. It’s those arriving in Australia and staying (by whatever visa) for 12 months out of 16, less those (who are resident and) leave for 12/16.

This imperfect measure is the best gauge available for the ongoing ‘mass’ of overseas arrivals. Nowadays, the net student arrivals swamp the net permanent arrivals. Net student arrivals also outnumber the net arrivals of temp-workers plus visitors. But note, about half of each year’s permanent-migrant tally is already onshore, on student or other visas.  

In Treasury estimates, natural increase plus net migration equals population growth. Population is set to grow 1.7 per cent in 2019 and 2020, mostly from net migration.

These estimates appear as Appendix A ‘parameters’ in Budget paper no. 3. Australia’s natural increase, births minus deaths, is fairly low and predictable. The cursory explanation in the appendix is unobjectionable, though some may query the projected rise in fertility.

More problematic is the non-explanation of net migration. This setting has a signal effect on voters’ lives and effectively underwrites our high population growth. The appendix merely notes that the population ‘estimates’ hinge on the net migration ‘assumptions’. 

In another sense, it’s no real surprise, if the appendix is uncommunicative. As above, the three main parties are rusted on to mass migration. The Treasurer and Treasury are under no pressure to explain themselves to the public.

Sure, the Budget migration ‘assumptions’ are roughly related to more recent trends. Even then, they’re higher than any actual outcome recorded ever since 2009. Why would Treasury vault the 2019 and 2020 assumptions another 20,000-30,000 above the large and unsustainable 2017 and 2018 outcomes? The Budget papers make no effort to clarify. Yet the answer can be in no doubt. It’s at the behest of the GDP statistic.

Over this past decade, population growth has underpinned more than half of our real GDP growth. The 2018-19 budget prescribed 1.6 per cent population growth for 3 per cent GDP growth. Budget 2019-20 downgraded the 3 per cent, to 2.25 per cent. It seeks 1.7 per cent population growth. This is for 2.75 per cent GDP growth. Which looks unlikely.

Perennially, Treasury is forecasting resurgent GDP growth. It’s not happening. More reliably, population growth powers whatever GDP growth we do get. That’s why Treasury migration and population estimates are so high. ‘GDP growth’ will have it no other way. 

GDP growth is a tolerable measure to begin with, perhaps, in the advanced OECD nations with stable or slow growing populations. Such nations express little interest in imitating the continuing ‘miracle’ of our mass-migration economy. More appealing is the mystique of our migrant Points Test. Which doesn’t really select for skills in demand. Or the mystique of our Strong Borders. Which shutter the sea-lanes, yes, but not the air-lanes.

Measures like real GDP per capita, real wages per capita, and real wealth per household, begin to paint a more realistic picture of the Australian economy as it is experienced by ordinary people. The rich are getting richer as home ownership craters.

While the Budget cashes in its pro forma GDP gains, the Australian states carry the real-world infrastructure and service burdens of steeply rising population. Budget 2019-20 promised a sweetener of ‘$100 billion’ in infrastructure and ‘congestion busting’ over 10 years. Even if it were to be fully realised, still, it’s not enough.

A dominating lobby demands extremely high migration

New Zealanders measure and discuss migration in terms of net migration. Thus we can gauge readily that Labour isn’t meeting its clear 2017 commitment to cut migration. 

By contrast, Australian politicians contest permanent and temporary migration, especially the relatively small humanitarian (or refugee) intake. Net migration is not on the agenda.

Again, the Budgets set the tone. Usually, Budget papers 1-3 avoid the population issue. Their spotlight is on jobs and growth, and the deficit or surplus. As discussed above, the so-called net migration and population ‘parameters’ tiptoe into their appendix.

Budget 2019-20 changed tack somewhat. Upfront, the Treasurer highlighted the Prime Minister’s new population plan (the Plan) and its permanent migration ‘cap’ of 160,000. But, in postwar terms, even that is an extremely high number 1. While the number that really matters is net migration, topping 270,000 in Appendix A. 

In Budget Reply, Labor could have reasoned, you won’t ever cure congestion, with a mass-migration medicine. Quite the contrary. They were keen to up the dose.

With Greens support, they comprehensively outbid the Coalition on migration, promising virtually open-ended migrant-parent visas. Which could only have led to much higher net migration. As it transpired, voters weren’t buying. Not even in the obvious metro (Labor) seats with higher concentrations of migrant voters.

Reflect on the happy implications for the returned government. Opposition telegraphs to government a very wide discretion on migration and population policy. But the government can likely elicit an opposition response, if mooting changes to refugee and asylum policy.  

An analogous point applies to the mainstream media. They scrutinise refugee policy more diligently than migration policy. When the budget was released, generally, the media recycled the budget highlights and migration cap. Rare was the reporter who would write up the migration blowout lurking beneath the cap.

At a societal level, in advanced OECD nations, so-called left-modernism discourages the open discussion of immigration and population. In Australia, the cross-party cheer squad for high migration unites political parties, state and city governments, developers, media, academics, and unions. The Treasury assumptions sync with this Big Australia lobby.

Less enfranchised parties calling for lower migration and population are the electorate (in repeated surveys) and the environment (in repeated State of the environment reports). 

High population growth is both obsessive yet intentional

The government wouldn’t presume to supervise natural increase. As above, it is in any case fairly low and predictable. But the government does supervise net migration. And thereby supervises our turbo-charged (by OECD norms) population growth.

Let’s look at the current ‘Appendix A’ presentation, which debuted in 2009. Up to 2017, budget-night migration and population estimates (carrying time lags of some months in available data) may be compared with end-of-year outcomes.

Over this period, assumed net migration 2 ranges from 175,000 to 246,000. Actuals 3 seesaw between 169,000 and 264,000.  The average annual error of the estimates is 40,000 plus, or 20 per cent plus. Estimated population growth varies from 1.5 to 1.8 per cent. Actuals 4 range from 1.4 to 2.0 per cent. Average annual error grazes 0.2 per cent. 

Comparing the budget-night estimates to the end-of-following year outcomes, assumed migration varies from 180,000 to 250,000. Average error is under 20 per cent. Estimated population growth runs from 1.4 to 1.8 per cent. The average error just tops 0.2 per cent.   

The Department of Home Affairs, it is to be noted here, carries onerous duties to manage diverse visas and their long queues. It has no control over people’s movements out of Australia. Also, it lacks real-time net migration data.

Despite the daunting logistics, Home Affairs is landing the short-run Treasury migration estimates with quite passable accuracy. Yet the common assessment is that visa processing is reprehensibly ‘chaotic’ or ‘out of control’. To the extent that this is true, wouldn’t you think about lowering migration, to relieve the pressure? Not in Labor or ‘progressive’ circles. 

Turning now to the long term, here also, we manage our population. It’s not an accident.

Sure, at 25 million, already we’ve busted the 1998 ABS population forecast for 2051. But those extras didn’t fall from the clouds like rain. Repeatedly, our sovereign government has accelerated net migration, counting GDP gains and largely discounting collateral costs.

Former Prime Minister John Howard and former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley were me-too high immigration men. The latter, during the mining boom, readily acquiesced to ballooning permanent migration and steeply rising 457 visas.

By way of thanks, the miners gelignited Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2010 tax on super-profits. Their boom damaged our overall competitiveness. In a Coalition phase pre GFC, and Labor-Coalition phase post GFC, we’ve hugely increased overseas student numbers and deregulated visa pathways. At cost to systemic quality and local aspirants.         

So it’s not that ABS couldn’t do the maths. The government decisively upped the population momentum. Our average net migration over 2007-2017 — at 220,000 plus — considerably exceeds two multiples of the quarter-century net migration average up to 2006.

With overseas-student numbers possibly peaking, how could net migration ever top 270,000? One analyst has suggested this would rely on a strengthening economy, plus extra chip-ins from working holiday makers, visitors changing status, and the new temporary parent visa. Once again, so much for the spin, around migration and skills in demand. 

On the other hand, net migration might slump, should the economy weaken. But we’ve trumped 170,000 net, every year since 2006. To bolster migration and ‘jobs and growth’, the government could speed up visa processing, tweak visa rules or categories, intensify student drives in India or other markets, or unleash the migrant-parent visas.

Through to 2018-19, Australia trumpets ‘28 years of uninterrupted economic growth’. Surfing on net migration, the government and the Treasury may yet ballyhoo 30. Ordinary households and wage-earners would be left wondering, did they really ‘burn’ for us?

For the long term, the Treasury Intergenerational report assumes 215,000 annual net migration. Again, this is more than twice the average over 1982-2006.

Similarly, today’s ‘illustrative’ ABS projections will admit of nothing but high migration, at levels of 175,000 (call this, lower high), 225,000 (medium high) or 275,000 (very high).

In effect, the Budget is adopting the ‘very high’ ABS option. The Plan, meanwhile, hews to the ‘medium high’ ABS option. Even under these assumptions, Australia’s population would top 37 million, around 2050. By which time Sydney and Melbourne might hit 8 million.

To complete what is a less-than-virtuous circle, governments (notably their urban and transport planners) like to pretend that these brimming ABS numbers are ‘independent’ projections that will need to be accommodated.

Breaking ranks momentarily, even the NSW Premier briefly espoused a ‘breather’ of halving migration into NSW. She had a point. Once again, if you honestly want to ‘bust congestion’, you wouldn’t start off with full-throttle migration, pouring into Sydney and Melbourne.  

Routinely, governments declare, we’ve got a fix, for these self-inflicted crushes. Behold then the Alan Tudge scheme to channel booming population away from big cities. Finally now, our stressed infrastructure will be able to ‘catch up’. Postwar history undermines such claims. As government itself says, few nations are so urbanised. An unyielding 40 per cent of the population occupies two sprawling and increasingly unequal cities.   

When taken as normal, a 37 million in Australia by 2050 skates around unsustainable land clearing, habitat loss, water consumption, and greenhouse emissions. Yet the official Sydney and Melbourne urban plans both take as read a future 8 million. These ‘vibrant’ mega-city vistas are geared to elite economic interests. Not to the ordinary people.        

Never mind the Canberra bubble. Focus on the population bubble. As government prolongs it, so also they prolong the implausible ‘congestion busting’ and ‘decentralisation’ fixes. Thus might they perpetuate our houses and holes (consumption and extractive) economy and its iron-coal-and-students trade. Net migration would better serve the national interest and the voter preferences, if managed at more like its 1980s-1990s levels.

In conclusion

Net migration, the Treasury population lever, is adjusted with little explanation or scrutiny. 21st century government has more than doubled it. Political parties defend this as normal:

* Though the permanent migration ‘cap’ would eventually bite into the migration ‘net’, the latter remains the best year-on-year measure of our true migration levels.

* The net migration tally renders more visible the habitual boosts to immigration, not for the welfare of residents, but for the sake of ‘GDP growth’ and the Big Australia lobby.

* Treasury’s high-migration assumptions scaffold this GDP growth. Dismissing environmental cautions, ratcheting population continues to prop up sputtering GDP. 

* Net migration is geared to 270,000, a high exceeded once before, with population growth at 1.7 per cent, last observed in 2013. It makes a mockery of ‘congestion busting’.

* The true migration and population plans, despite their importance to voters, are by party consent absent from politics. Thus, they default to the Treasurer and Treasury.

* Post-election, Labor continues to brand as a high-migration party, contesting if anything refugee and asylum policy. Not every commentator can fathom the electoral logic of this.

Stephen Saunders (stephen@saunders.net) is a former APS public servant and consultant. A brief version of this article has appeared on Independent Australia. Thanks to Bob Birrell for the original idea and for the comments on this version.


1 It is like catnip to ‘progressive’ commentators to eagerly accept the spin that 160,000 permanent migrants is a sizeable reduction. Again, it’s net migration that matters. Also, if you’ve just had a decade of record high permanent migration, you don’t have to try very hard, to induce a ‘10 year low’ the following year.

2 Net migration and population estimates to 2017 are from Appendix A (B for 2011) of Budget paper no. 3 in Archive of budgets at https://archive.budget.gov.au. Annual percentage population growth estimates are no longer published, as they ought to be. The reader must compute them, from published population estimates.

3 Net migration for 2018 is available as a preliminary figure. Net migration (final) for the years 2009-2017 is read, from each following December’s ABS 3101.0, Australian demographic statistics. The December 2018 issue, now containing the final migration figure for the year 2017, was only released in June 2019.

4 Annual percentage population growth for the years 2009 through 2017 is read from each December’s ABS 3101.0. The figure for 2011 is adjusted here.

 


Why do we have a ‘big Australia’?

Stephen Saunders

This post is based on the research paper, ‘Why do we have a big Australia’?

Pruning migration is low-hanging policy fruit compared with reducing greenhouse emissions.
Bill Shorten wrote to Scott Morrison recently proposing a “bipartisan approach” to population policy not the “politics of division”. In my jaded interpretation, he meant: Let’s not budge on Big Australia. Instead, let’s keep making unattainable promises on infrastructure and decentralisation.
Is Australia’s high population growth a logical fixture, endorsed by all, for the good of all? Tilting at these assumptions is the Australian Population Research Institute’s Report Why do we have a ‘big Australia’?, released last month.
I define big Australia as an inordinate appeal to high migration and high population growth, as headline and future economic tools, with larger regard for GDP growth and smaller regard for the environmental and social consequences.
Put that way, no such program could have emerged in the aftermath of World War II. The global ascent of GDP was in its infancy. Neoliberalism was decades away. Rather, defence and development guided Arthur Calwell’s pro-Briton “populate or perish” program. He wanted 2 per cent population growth; half would be natural increase, half immigration.
Higher population growth accompanied the 1950s boom in Australia. From the 1970s to the 1990s, net overseas migration dipped; it averaged less than 100,000 a year. Population only grew about 1 per cent a year. But GDP growth, though volatile, was commonly 3 to 5 per cent. It was a period of economic reform.
From 2000, however, John Howard decided to crank up immigration. By 2005, the mining boom was being used to justify this surge. Howard and then Opposition Leader Kim Beazley clicked as self-described “high-immigration men”.
In effect, the Gillard government’s A sustainable population strategy for Australia, released in 2011, rubber-stamped Howard’s policy shift. The official migration intake is now off its peak of 190,000. But net overseas migration is still running well over 200,000, a level never attained before 2007. Population growth is 1.5 per cent and more. That’s much higher than most rich OECD nations – or even India.

Above trend
This record population growth is largely removed from the party-political contest. But public opinion has shifted in recent years. Various polls (TAPRI, Essential, Newspoll, even this year’s Lowy) now find 54 per cent or much higher majorities that favour lowering immigration or population growth. A couple of polls still find for a (very substantial) minority instead.
If the will of the people was ever going to count, why not on the number of migrants? Or, should the people defer to those in the growth lobby, who are confident they know better?
And who is in the growth lobby anyway? Most of the influential interest groups you can think of – except the electorate.
The groupthink begins with the three main political parties. With varying emphases, all celebrate Big Australia for its “jobs and growth” and “multiculturalism” or rejection of racism. Professed public interest motivations also apply to academics and professionals, and to unions, social or religious organisations.
The vaunted multiculturalism has its own racial signatures. India and China have now overtaken Britain as our top migration nations, but significant constitutional and policy arrangements remain decidedly pro-British or pro-Christian. Politicians launch incendiaries against refugees and “African” or “Muslim” immigration, though all three groups are statistically small segments.
The European migrant cultures are more respected now, lionised even. For the original Indigenous Australians, however, respect is a sometime thing. There are the gains of land rights and native title. Against that are high incarceration rates, remote work-for-the-dole schemes and cashless welfare cards. The Indigenous consensus on constitutional recognition was rejected out of hand.
By default, the Treasury is our key population agency. To help perpetuate the 27-year “miracle” in GDP growth, it quietly limns each Budget with high net overseas migration and high population growth.The Reserve Bank, unlike the Productivity Commission, pushes the supposed demographic rejuvenation from high migration. Well over half of all migrants, and well over three-quarters of skilled migrants, go straight to Sydney or Melbourne. The RBA, however, suggests that “zoning restrictions” push up city house prices.

This post originally appeared as an article in The Canberra Times,
6 November 2018

Disability and age: from 1998 to 2015

By Katharine Betts

Republished from YourLifeChoices 30 June 2016

We’re so used to hearing that an ageing population is the biggest threat facing our economy, but as sociologist Katharine Betts reveals, the figures don’t quite support this claim.

Since the late 60s large families have become less common, and at the same time, life expectancy has continued its steady rise. For many of us this feels like an improvement –parents no longer have to face numerous unplanned pregnancies and most of us can look forward to our 80th birthday and beyond. But these two changes also mean that the average age of the population has risen and will continue to rise for a few more decades.

For some people, however, this does not look like a good thing. In March 2015 a journalist charted the life of newborn baby girl, writing that she would ‘experience life as a youthful minority in an Australia bursting with ailing boomers’. And, by the time the child was middle aged, ‘there’ll be a generation of geriatrics to support’.[1] Another writes of ‘bedridden hordes of the elderly, dwindling numbers of able-bodied workers, and deeply indebted governments scratching for tax revenues to pay for rising health costs, pensions and aged-care costs’.[2] Other comments like these are not hard to find.[3]

But is the situation really so bad?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been conducting surveys of the numbers of people suffering from disability for over 30 years. They show the percentage of Australians with disabilities grouped by age and sex, and by how serious the problem might be.

The first two were in the 1980s: 1981 and 1988. They show a discouraging tendency for the rate of disability to rise over the seven intervening years. In 1981, 51 per cent of Australians aged 85 and over were found to be ‘severely handicapped’ and in 1988 the proportion had risen to 62 per cent.[4] People were described as severely handicapped if they needed help with one or more of three core activities: self care (showering, dressing, eating and so on), mobility (moving around inside or outside the home), and verbal communication.

By the late 1990s the terminology had changed from handicap to disability, and the definitions of serious disability now included two separate categories: profoundly disabled (always needing assistance with one of the three core activities) and severely disabled (sometimes needing assistance with a core activity).[5]

There have been five comparable surveys from 1998 to 2015. And the pattern they provide gives cause for optimism.

Figure 1 shows that rates of profound or severe disability for people aged 65 and over have been falling over this 17-year period. In the case of those aged 85 and over the rate fell from 65 per cent to 49 per cent.


Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 (various issues)

The 1998 data doesn’t distinguish between people aged 85-89 and those aged 90 and over. But from 2003 on we can see the difference between the older old and the younger old more clearly.


Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[6]

Figure 2 shows that between 2003 and 2015 profound and severe disability rates for people aged 90 and over fell from 74 per cent to 63 per cent, while rates for people aged 85 to 89 fell from 51 per cent to 42 per cent. Similar to Figure 1, it also shows that rates were lower for people under the age of 85. But in Figure 2 it’s also clear that, in all cases, these rates have also fallen since 2003.

Disability is not confined to older people. There are profoundly and severely disabled people in all age groups. In 2015 more than half of them (52 per cent) were under the age of 65. Indeed all babies and children, at least up to the age of five, need help with self care, mobility and communication. To get a full picture of how many Australians need such help, and how many carers we in fact need, we should add them in too.

But here we are focusing on older people.

Figure 3 shows the changes between 2013 and 2015 by both age and sex for the 65-and-over group.

Source: Disability, Ageing and Carers, ABS, 4430.0 2015, April 2016[7]

In all age-group categories the reported rates are higher for women than for men. In some cases this could be due to men being reluctant to report serious problems, but the gap is probably mostly due to the same factors that lead to men having lower life expectancy: more hazardous work, risk taking, reluctance to seek medical help, and hormonal factors that may weaken men’s immune systems8. Thus it is probable that health problems among men are more likely to end in an earlier death rather than prolonged disability. It’s also true that women have a higher risk of dementia, a risk that is independent of the fact that they live longer and so are exposed to this risk over a longer period9.

But the important finding is that, over the 12-year period, rates have gone down for all of the sub-groups. We are not only living longer, the portion of our lives when we might fear to be limited in what we can do is getting shorter. Life expectancy is going up, and healthy life expectancy is going up a bit faster.[8]

Why is this happening? Medical scientists and demographers have not yet got clear answers. But they can tell us the immediate causes. Coronary artery disease[9] and serious vision problems[10] are declining. Dementia — the disease that many of us fear most — is also in retreat. In 2013 a British study reported that over a 20-year period the prevalence of dementia among people aged 65 and over had fallen by 24 per cent.[11] And in early 2016 a US study reported that over the last thirty years (among people who had finished high school) the rate of dementia had declined by 44 per cent.[12]

We don’t yet know why these changes are occurring. Better health care explains part of the decline in heart disease and vision problems, but only part. Possibly a lifetime founded on a long period of education helps stave off dementia. When we know more we’ll be able to take steps to reduce age-related disability rates even further.

In the meantime the data on the changes themselves are clear. Increasing numbers of older Australians are, and will be, free of serious health problems and will be able to continue to make a positive contribution to society.

Yes, the ageing of the baby boomers means that we are going have more older people in Australia. The ranks of those aged 65 to 79 will increase over the next 15 years, but more of us will be healthy and able to keep on working in paid jobs, if that’s what we want to do and the jobs are there. Or we will keep on with the volunteer work, helping care for grandchildren and, with luck, doing many other interesting things that we didn’t have time for before.

Katharine Betts was joint-editor of the demographic journal People and Place from 1993 to 2010 and has written widely on demographic topics. She is currently adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne and vice-president of the Australian Population Research Institute.


[1] G. Rushton, ‘Here’s to a long life for Frankie’, The Australian, 6 March 2015, p. 1, 8

[2] F. Anderson, ‘Future tense’, The Australian Financial Review, February 21 2015, p. 16

[3] K. Betts, ‘The ageing of the Australian population: triumph or disaster?’, Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University, 2014

[4] Calculated from data in Disabled and Aged Persons, Australia, 1988: Preliminary Results, Catalogue no. 4118.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 1989, p. 2

[5] Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings, Australia 1998, Catalogue no. 4430.0, ABS, Canberra, 1999, p. 4

[8] Healthy life expectancy in Australia: patterns and trends 1998 to 2012: Bulletin 126, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014

[9] D. S. Jones and J. A. Greene, ‘Is Dementia in Decline? Historical Trends and Future Trajectories’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 507-509

[10] M. Chernew, D. M. Cutler, K. Ghosh and M. B. Landrum, Understanding the improvement in disability free life expectancy in the U.S: Working Paper 22306, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016

[11] F. E. Matthews, A. Arthur, L. E. Barnes, J. Bond, C. Jagger, L. Robinson and C. Brayne, ‘A two-decade comparison of prevalence of dementia in individuals aged 65 years and older from three geographical areas of England: results of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study I and II’, The Lancet, vol. 382, no. 2013, pp. 1405- 1412

[12] C. L. Satizabal, A. S. Beiser, V. Chouraki, G. Chêne, C. Dufouil and S. Seshadri, ‘Incidence of dementia over three decades in the Framingham Heart Study’, The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 374, no. 6, 2016, pp. 523-532

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Australian temporary work visa concessions in the Singapore FTA package

Bob Kinnaird
26 May 2016

Prime Minister Turnbull announced the Australia-Singapore ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) on 6 May last, just a few days before he called the 2 July election.

Cynics will suspect the timing and also see the Singapore announcement as something of a consolation prize. The much bigger FTA fish for the Turnbull government was the elusive agreement with India. This was originally promised by the end of 2015 but Special Trade Envoy Mr Robb this week said only that a deal is now possible around mid-2016.

With the CSP announcement, Mr Turnbull can now claim a second FTA on top of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to match the three North Asian FTAs of his predecessor Mr Abbott. As the Turnbull government’s FTA ‘success’ is trumpeted as a key part of its re-election campaign, this ticks the public relations box.

There are three significant Australian immigration commitments in the Australia-Singapore CSP that probably signal what is coming in the much larger India agreement.

1 Australia’s commitments to ‘waive’ labour market testing (LMT) in the 457 and the 400 visa program
Labour market testing (LMT) means employers have a legal obligation to look for suitably qualified and experienced Australian citizens and permanent residents, and show that none are available, before employers can access temporary visas for foreign workers.

In the 457 visa program, Australia has committed to ‘waive’ LMT for all Singaporean nationals and all ‘intra-corporate transferees’, ie all other foreign nationals who are employees of Singapore-based businesses transferring to an Australian branch of the Singapore-based business.

This LMT waiver will apply to persons in all 651 occupations on the 457-eligible list, including tradespersons and professionals, and Singaporean students studying in Australia.

In the 400 visa program, Australia has similarly committed to ‘waive’ LMT for all Singaporean nationals visaed as ‘installers and servicers of machinery and equipment’.

Australia has also committed not to apply any numerical caps to the number of visas granted to the above categories covered by the 457 and 400 visa commitments.

The LMT waivers and the commitment to no caps will be binding international obligations which effectively cannot be reversed by future Australian governments.

As with the TPP and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), these irreversible concessions on the 457 and 400 visas were not publicly disclosed by Prime Minister Turnbull in his lengthy media conference on the CSP. Neither were they disclosed by Immigration Minister Dutton in his media release on immigration measures in the CSP package or the DFAT CSP ‘Fact Sheet: Immigration’ posted on DFAT’s website.

As with the TPP, it was Labor’s Senator Penny Wong who extracted the CSP visa information from DFAT officials at Senate Estimates. This included an admission that ‘the outcomes are broadly consistent with our approach on the TPP’.

Singapore makes up only a tiny fraction of the 457 program – just under one per cent. But that is not the point, which is the incremental removal by stealth of Australian Parliament and government control over key aspects of its main temporary migration programs.

2 Work and Holiday visa program
This program will at least be reciprocal, unlike the one-sided ChAFTA program that provided work and holiday 462 visas to 5,000 young Chinese. The Singapore agreement commences with 500 per year on each side, with increased numbers to be negotiated over time.

The official CSP documentation provides a very misleading description of the 462 visa on which the 500 Singaporean nationals will come to Australia. The DFAT CSP Fact Sheet on Immigration says the 462 visa allows visa-holders to ‘undertake short term work and/or study to supplement their holiday and cultural experience’.

This downplays the role of the 462 visa as a work visa. The fact is the 462 visa allows young foreign nationals to work for the entire 12 months stay in Australia. Many do so or work for most of their stay. The only notional work restriction is 6 months with the one employer, but Immigration policy allows many lawful ways around that visa condition which is poorly regulated anyway.

For example, 462 visa holders working not as direct employees but as so-called ‘independent contractors’ or ‘ABN workers’ can lawfully work for the same employer for 12 months straight, provided they do a few days work ‘on paper’ for someone else. This practice is widespread in industries such as construction and contract cleaning. It undercuts wages and conditions of Australian employees, and contributes to visa-holder exploitation and tax evasion by employers and their visa workers.

From November 2015, the Coalition government has also allowed 462 visa holders in ‘Northern Australia’ to work 12 months with same employer in certain sectors: construction, mining, agriculture and tourism, plus aged and disability care. ‘Northern Australia’ includes all of the Northern Territory and those areas of Western Australia and Queensland above the Tropic of Capricorn – and is a prime target for investment under the Australia-Singapore CSP.

A prudent Australian government would place a moratorium on any more Work and Holiday visa agreements with other countries, until this temporary visa program has been thoroughly cleaned up. The abuses of this visa program have been well documented in the media and a Senate inquiry for more than two years. Instead the Turnbull government will probably continue to use the program as a bargaining chip in trade and investment deals.

3 A Pilot Internship Program for Singaporean Students
This immigration measure is a new feature in an Australian FTA package and is potentially a far-reaching one.

The DFAT CSP documentation says ‘a pilot internship program will aim to give 100 Singaporeans studying in Australia more internship opportunities with leading Australian companies’ but gave no more details.

Senator Richard Colbeck, Minister for Tourism and International Education, provided this:

‘Singapore and Australia have agreed a pilot internship program which will aim to give 100 Singaporeans studying in Australia more internship opportunities with leading Australian companies….

‘The agreement also provides opportunities for Singaporean students to gain work experience in Australia.

‘Australia will be seeking to include similar agreements in other trade arrangements to enhance our opportunities to grow international education – further building on the National Strategy for International Education 2025 released last week.’

A pilot program for only 100 Singaporeans in Australia might sound minor. But the Minister’s words imply we can expect something similar for India shortly, with others to follow. Based on overseas student numbers, Australia could be offering India up to 500 additional internships, not just 100.

So far no Turnbull government Minister has explained what the Australian government will actually do to meet the agreed aim of more internship and work experience opportunities in Australia for Singaporeans; or crucially whether the ‘internships’ and ‘work experience in Australia’ will involve paid or unpaid work.

The Turnbull government currently has a problem on its hands with its proposed PaTH ‘internships’ for unemployed young people. Under these arrangements, young people would be paid $4 an hour on top of their social security payment to do an internship placement with a prospective employer.

It could have another problem with these internships for overseas students if the Professional Year Program (PYP), outlined below, is any guide to the Coalition’s intentions.

Senator Colbeck said the internships arrangement will be reciprocal, and ‘more than 700 Australian students will study and undertake internships in Singapore in the first three years of the New Colombo Plan (2014-16).’ The number of Australian students undertaking internships (vs study) in Singapore is not known, nor are the terms and conditions of these Singapore-based ‘internships’ including whether they will be paid or unpaid.

Domestic political considerations in Singapore may influence the scale and nature of these internships for Australian students. As in Australia, there is considerable community concern in Singapore about government policies allowing foreign workers access to the domestic job market.

As one member of the Singapore elite said, ‘It’s your PMETs, the professionals, managers and executives and technical people who worry that foreigners are prepared to come in to work for less pay and they (Singaporeans) are marginalised’ (Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, interview with Singapore Prime Minister Lee, 2 August 2015).

Professional Year Program (PYP)
The PYP is an Australian government-endorsed scheme and has operated since 2008 for overseas student graduates from Australian universities who cannot make up sufficient points for a points-tested skilled permanent resident visa. These graduates are granted a 485 temporary visa and do a program of around 44 weeks duration. The PYP fee ranges from around $9,000 to $12,300 per participant.

The program includes an ‘unpaid internship’ of around 12 weeks, for a minimum of around 220-240 hours or so. Given that participants actually pay money to do the PYP, the ‘unpaid internship’ is really an internship that the participant pays for – between $2,500 and $3,400 (based on 12 out of 44 weeks, or 27% of the total PYP fees).

The PYP is currently only available in accounting, IT and engineering. Around 2,000 485 visa-holders undertake the PYP each year, the majority (over 60%) in accounting followed by IT. According to a 2010 survey, around 70% of PYP graduates find professional-level employment, often with the company providing the Internship.

The PYP program is highly contentious because of the 12 weeks ‘unpaid internship’. It will be even more so if the government intends to expand these programs as part of its international education strategy, commencing with Singaporean students and commitments written into international economic agreements. This will set up even more intense competition with Australian graduates for entry-level graduate jobs. Employment outcomes for Australian graduates have been deteriorating. Between 2008 to 2015, the proportion of new bachelor degree graduates in full-time employment 4 months after graduating has fallen from 85% to 67%.

This apparently is exactly the Turnbull government’s plan. One ‘Key theme’ in its National Strategy for International Education 2025 is: ‘employability – to provide greater opportunities for work, integrated learning and internships for international students’.

The Coalition government should have a fight on its hands over its shift in international education provision to more work-based arrangements, with no regard for adverse impacts on Australian graduates. It will have its first fight if it expands ‘internships’ for international students and graduates, especially if they are unpaid as in the PYP.

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Bob Kinnaird is Research Associate with The Australian Population Research Institute and was National Research Director CFMEU National Office 2009-14.

An earlier version of this blog was first posted on John Menadue’s blogsite Pearls and Irritations.