Interview outtakes (I): Andrew Leigh on the ALP, immigration and the labour market

I’m in the process of writing some longer pieces about immigration and population. Last week I interviewed a range of politicians about these topics. However, as with most 20-30 minute interviews, you end up with a lot of interesting material which isn’t going to make it into final versions. Instead of losing this material, I’m going to post some of the more interesting out-takes and add my thoughts.

To kick things off, Andrew Leigh on how the ALP talks about immigration:

Me: “Much was made of then-Prime Minister Gillard’s remarks about foreigners and jobs last year. These issues polled well and proved popular with many party supporters. Yet evidence increasingly shows Australia’s migration framework has a strong positive impact on low-skilled earnings, given the complementary nature of high-skilled migrants. I found it very hard to intuitively understand more supply will not substantially lessen demand. What role does the ALP have to play when discussing the intersection of migration and the labour market? How can these complex messages be better understood in the electorate?”

Andrew Leigh: “I think it’s a hard conversation to have. One of the interesting dimensions which comes to mind, which comes when talking about this to unionists either in the work place, or organisations in areas with high migrant flows, is the concern that workers coming in from non-union cultures are much more likely to be compliant, much more able to put up with different safety standards, much more opposed to striking over safety concerns. They are sometimes less concerned with pushing down pay than conditions. I think they are reasonable arguments to have but we want to keep going back to to that basic touchstone about every first speech from a labor member about how ‘let me tell you about how many migrants come from my family’, ‘let me tell you about the migrants I’ve helped’, those kind of heart touching stories that are in so many labor maiden speeches. We ought to be the party of open Australia in an broad sense and not just an electoral sense.”

Leigh raises an important point. I tend to approach these issues by giving strong priority to economic gains, as I think this is how most policy arguments play out these days. However standards of work conditions are critical. What struck me is that this argument seems eminently sensible yet didn’t come through strongly last year in the media when this very debate was occurring about 457 visas.

Further, this raises additional questions about union memberships and migration in general. This 457 visa report I co-authored last year showed 7 per cent of 457 migrants were union members, however spiked up and down depending on industry association. I think higher unionisation amongst new migrants is probably one of the best outcomes in terms of ensuring migrant exploitation is minimised and conditions are maintained. However I assume a combination of industries and ethnic backgrounds make this all but impossible in certain workplaces. It’s very hard to know if a union penetration rate of 7 per cent is positive, negative or simply average.

Finally, when Leigh says the ALP should be open in a broad sense and not simply an electoral sense, he is right but this is extremely tricky in practice. The policy goals of the progressive political class are currently a substantial distance from the public perception about immigration – as I think the debate from last year showed.

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