The Politics    Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The backpacker solution

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Parliament House today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Parliament House today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The government begs those it abandoned to help it out of a tight spot

The PM and treasurer held a joint press conference in Canberra this morning in an attempt to put a positive spin on the health, economic and labour crises enveloping the nation. Scott Morrison tried all his usual blame-shifting tactics: things are bad everywhere (no mention of our relative advantage, hard won through lockdowns, being so quickly squandered); Omicron had “changed everything” (something Delta did too, if you recall); Australia still had a comparatively low death toll (but we are surging up the ranks of COVID deaths per capita); the things he had failed to do, such as order enough rapid tests, were not his responsibility (voters disagree), and the crises in areas that definitely are his responsibility, such as aged care, were not his fault; and, of course, current criticisms were being made with the benefit of hindsight (a long-time favourite of a man who has zero capacity for foresight). Morrison and Josh Frydenberg also came armed with a curious new proposal to address the labour shortages that they somehow did not see coming: the scrapping of fees for working holiday and student visas, in a bid to lure young workers back to our shores.

The new policy, which Frydenberg referred to as laying out a “welcome mat”, will see the visa application fees rebated for students who arrive within the next eight weeks, and for backpackers who arrive within the next 12. Morrison insisted that this was a “thank you” for “coming back and continuing to choose Australia”. But in the next breath, he revealed his true motivation: addressing the labour crisis his laissez-faire attitude had created. “We also want them to come here and be able to be filling some of these critical workforce shortages, particularly those who are working and being trained in healthcare, aged care, those types of sectors,” he said.

The scheme is expected to cost around $55 million, with a further $3 million put aside for a Tourism Australia campaign to promote it. Let’s hope that Morrison, with his infamous record when it comes to tourism campaigns, isn’t put in charge of this one. “My message to them is: come on down,” he told reporters. “Come on down now, because you wanted to come to Australia, you got your visa, we want you to come to Australia and enjoy a holiday here in Australia, move all the way around the country, and the same time join our workforce and help us in our agricultural sector, in our hospitality sector, and so many of the other parts of the economy that rely on that labour – that workforce right now.” Enticing.

Morrison’s call for foreign workers to “come on down” to our COVID-infested, test-lacking, ill-prepared shores is rather bold – not least because it arrives on the same day that Europe and the United States are advising their citizens against travel to Australia (how the mighty and exclusionary have fallen). It comes also as local workers have their calls for better protections and testing rejected, with Frydenberg yesterday labelling union demands for basic safety as “intimidation and threats”. Foreign workers are traditionally even more vulnerable to unsafe working conditions, with less power and knowledge of the legal system (some might argue that this is the point of the scheme).

And then there is the fact that these are the very people Australia has turned its back on (and in many cases, locked the door on) for the past two years. At the start of the pandemic, backpackers and international students were left out of federal economic support, forced to line up for food banks and vouchers, with the clear implication that they weren’t welcome here. Many foreign students were rightly frustrated to be locked out of the country while still paying full fees for their education. As Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon was quick to note, this is the same government that introduced the backpacker tax that was struck down in the High Court only months ago. But now that we need them, things are different, with Australia hoping to exploit those it has long exploited. The Morrison government is asking them to “come on down” and fix the problems it has created for itself.

It’s likely that many international students and backpackers will take advantage of this offer, despite Australia’s ill-treatment of them over the past two years, and despite the fact that the nation is now a global Omicron hotspot. But many would be justified in turning their noses up at the nation that abandoned them.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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