The Politics    Thursday, January 20, 2022

Forklifters and leaners

By Rachel Withers

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

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

Morrison’s ludicrous suggestion that children be used to fill workforce shortages is his most desperate yet

Several ideas have been raised this week, as the federal government desperately tries to solve the workforce shortages brought on by its failure to prepare for “living with COVID”. Yesterday, the government was inviting the backpackers and international students it previously abandoned to “come on down”, with a rebate on visa fees. Others have suggested using the military; 20 Australian Defence Force workers have already been deployed to drive ambulances in Victoria, and independent senator Jacqui Lambie has called for more ADF personnel to be put to “goddamn use” as systems buckle. The Health Services Union has suggested the government consider paying “everyday Australians” to work in aged-care roles that require minimal training. Meanwhile others – including business leaders – are wondering why refugees being unnecessarily detained can’t be allowed to live and work in the community. The federal government wants less daily testing done with RATs, which would ultimately mean more people inadvertently working while infectious, and quite obviously make the whole situation worse. But today the PM put forward his most deranged idea yet: that children be allowed to work as forklift drivers to help address Australia’s crippling supply chain issues.

If you don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, you may have missed this one. Ahead of today’s national cabinet meeting, Guardian Australia reported that Scott Morrison was planning to ask premiers to lower the age at which individuals could obtain a forklift licence, which is 18 in most states. It was an idea the PM flagged in yesterday’s blame-shifting press conference, noting that changes were needed at the state level “around the age of forklift drivers, to get quite specific”, and he reportedly planned to tell them what was a “suggestion from industry”.

Morrison’s bizarre proposal caught state leaders by surprise, however, with the relevant ministers quick to quash the idea ahead of the meeting. When asked about the suggestion, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said – “with no disrespect to the PM or anybody else” – that he had heard no such proposal from supermarket chief executives in recent meetings. Unsurprisingly, national cabinet has since opted to “proceed no further” with the idea. “We had a good discussion about it today and it is not something that we believe, collectively, that is something we should be pursuing at this time,” the PM said after the meeting.

It hardly needs saying that this was a preposterous proposal. Unions were outraged and pundits baffled. (Satirists and cartoonists, meanwhile, were at a loss as to how to respond to something so ludicrous.) It was all the more ridiculous considering today’s national cabinet was supposed to be focused on ensuring children and teachers could return to school safely; keeping kids in school was supposedly the most important thing of all, though clearly that’s second to keeping the economy running. (National cabinet failed to come to an agreed approach on schools today, with jurisdictions to chart their own courses). Some wondered if it had all been some kind of “dead cat” distraction, while others rejected that idea, noting that it wasn’t a particularly clever way to distract from prior incompetence.

The notion was patently absurd, and yet the prime minister went ahead and proposed it – at national cabinet to boot. He did not dismiss the idea as a media rumour, or suggest he had been taken out of context. He said that a good discussion had been had about it. Which prompts the question, and I mean this quite seriously, is the PM okay? To be fair, he surely didn’t mean to suggest that young children be put to work, only older teens. But did he really mean to propose to parents – a group he regularly tries to appeal to, with fatherhood being central to his identity – that their older kids should be sent into a risky work environment in order to clean up his mess?

The proposal from the PM will surely fade from memory. But it should not be forgotten that in a period of desperation, brought on by his own government’s inability to plan ahead, Morrison sought to put kids on the line.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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