Despite the sublime indifference of much of the local media to unfolding events in Europe overnight, the threat of Global Financial Crisis II: GFC Latin Style has plenty of significance for Australia, particularly if you’re in the export business.

It’s also a great opportunity for a country in dire need of more skilled labour.

Regardless of whether the Germans find it within themselves to bail Greece out, the latter is set for an extended economic slump (and, after years of absurd profligacy, it’s not unmerited). The rest of the PIGS are unlikely to fare much better.

Standard and Poor’s — the rating agency that after handing out AAA ratings like confetti before the GFC has suddenly found old-time religion, slashing debt ratings left and right — predicts Portugal won’t grow at all this year, and Spain is set for an extended period of subdued growth. Italy also faces a long period of subdued economic growth. And then there are the Irish, not quite so mouthy now about their “Celtic tiger” of an economy.

It’s time for Australia to swoop in and start stripping these carcasses of high-quality labour to address our own skilled shortages. The Immigration Department should be spending several million dollars setting up shop in Europe to aggressively sell the Australian economy to highly-skilled Europeans who face unemployment or profound economic uncertainty for an extended period in their home countries.

Why on earth is Tony Abbott talking about sending unemployed kids down the mines when millions of ready-trained European men and women face unemployment and economic disruption as a consequence of years of fiscal profligacy and structural growth impediments?

There are strong communities from each of those countries established in Australia. There’ll be existing networks, possibly even family connections, for young, educated Greeks or Spaniards willing to move to Australia, making settlement easier and less expensive. It need not be permanent migration: they can come here on temporary visas, retain their EU passports and return to their homelands once the European economy has recovered. In the interim, they might decide a high-growth economy like Australia’s offers them far more than those of sclerotic Europe, and want to stay.

Even better, taking European skills and putting them to work here has none of the moral implications of trying to attract precious skilled labour from developing countries, where it is important to those countries’ economic development.

Skilled labour is, long-term, a shrinking resource in western economies, because of ageing populations. Australia’s ageing problem isn’t as bad as most other countries, but our high-growth economy has led to skill shortages already. Longer-term, economies that can attract skilled labour, even on a temporary rather than permanent basis, will accrue a significant economic advantage over those that cannot.

Competition for labour will become fierce, and Australia, a long way from anywhere else, has an immediate disadvantage compared to Europe.  That’s partly the reason why we lost so many lawyers to Europe during the boom years.

Now it’s time to return the favour and exploit European failures of economic management. There’s a vast pool of skilled labour over there waiting to be tapped, and our need for skilled labour will only grow.

Peter Fray

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