“We’ll decide who comes to Australia — lots and lots of people in ever-increasing record numbers,” John Howard didn’t say yesterday amidst all the reporting on wages inflation remaining tame.

With the general media being unable to see beyond home-loan rates, there’s plenty of commentary on the monetary policy impact of the surprisingly low wages growth, but nothing on what’s keep average wage rises modest when market forces should be pushing them higher.

WorkChoices is one suspect. The constant pressure from our retail duopoly to push down costs throughout the supply chain is another. But the big elephant in the livingroom is the record and rising supply of labour from overseas.

John Howard won’t be campaigning as Australia’s greatest champion of immigration and multiculturalism despite overseeing the importation of nearly 300,000 people in the 2006-07 financial year. Such irony.

Instead, the Government is downplaying migration numbers. Minister Kevin Andrew’s Budget media release announced an increase of 5000 in the skilled migrant category to give a migration program total of 152,800. Overlooked in that release was the 13,000-strong humanitarian migration category. Along with another few hundred in the “special eligibility” category, the total is about 166,000.

The big wheeze though is excluding our ‘guest workers’ from the total. In the nine months to the end of March, we took in 34,170 guest workers on four-year 457visas plus another 30,290 dependents (very many of whom also work). If that rate is maintained in the June quarter, the total for the year will be 85,548 — up from 71,150 last financial year.

Anecdotally , there’s certainly no slowing in the growth of 457s, which would mean we should crack the 100,000 next year. (Indeed, some semi-skilled categories are edging into the system, such as aged-care workers and truck drivers.)

Also not counted as part of the official migration figures are citizens of New Zealand. In the last financial year, 23,781 of them settled here. Let’s assume the stronger Australian economy continues to attract them at that rate and round the number to 24,000.

That gives a total of 290,000 newcomers. But wait, there’s probably more. Also tucked away in the Budget was a new visa category for foreign students who have completed professional training here. It will allow them to work for 18 months while they gain professional experience in their field of study and improve their English.

It’s considered a “transitional” visa — neither temporary or permanent — but looks like being given to many who previously would have gone straight for the “skilled migration” permanent category. Could there be 10,000 of them? I don’t know — but it would round out the numbers to a neat 300K.

And the really neat thing is that cherry-picking such large numbers of mainly young, skilled, well-educated migrants allows us to circumvent the problems of our demographics and our own lack of investment in education. Nice work, Johnny — but I suspect you won’t make an issue of it.

Peter Fray

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