Op-Ed: Government feeding housing and inflation pain

As Australians are being smashed by skyrocketing household bills and are wondering how they can absorb a thirteenth interest rate rise in eighteen months, it’s hard to forget that Anthony Albanese came to government promising to cut the cost of living.

Whether you’re paying a mortgage or renting, the cost of housing is going through the roof. And the reality is, that’s a direct result of policy decisions by the Albanese Government.

While some drivers of inflation, like the oil price, are outside federal government control, what is always in the federal government’s control is migration. And in the twelve months to September 2023, the Albanese Government oversaw a record migration boom of more than 500,000 additional people. That’s around double the average net overseas migration from the pre-pandemic period. What’s more, the Government’s forward targets also remain well above historic levels.

The reality is that it’s simply impossible for Australia to build new housing at anywhere near the rate required to meet this population surge. That surge since the end of the pandemic drove a dramatic fall in rental vacancies and a rapid rise in rents, which fed into inflation and was a major cause of yet another rate rise in November.

The driver of this population surge is neither humanitarian refugees nor skilled workers. Far and away the largest group of overseas arrivals over the last twelve months is international students. In September, the number of temporary student visas hit 665,000 - more than 100,000 more than the pre-Covid peak.

When a record rate of international student migration is contributing so heavily to inflation, rent prices and interest rate rises, it’s clear that the federal government’s policy settings are wrong. Student-led population growth at this level isn’t in the national interest, and it’s certainly not in the interests of the millions of Australians finding it hard to pay rent or struggling to even find somewhere to live. What’s more, we know that international students themselves are among the most likely to be exploited, both in housing and in the workforce.

International students are of course a very welcome part of our community, but the number of visas granted needs to be adaptive to the availability of housing and associated infrastructure, as well as the ability of educational institutions to deliver all students a high-quality education. More than 650,000 student visas may provide a lucrative income stream to universities and private training organisations, but it is neither good migration nor education policy. In fact, there’s clear evidence that student visas have been exploited by unscrupulous operators.

There’s nothing clever or kind about an unsustainably high migration rate that leaves us unable to provide enough housing to meet demand, and those who do have housing struggling to pay for it. Let’s also remember that the Albanese Government put on hold hundreds of infrastructure projects when it implemented a “90-day review” of infrastructure projects which it still hasn’t finished more than 190 days later. That means it’s not just housing but also road and transport infrastructure which isn’t being delivered at anywhere near the rate required to meet the strain that’s been created by the Albanese government’s policy of big Australia by stealth.

Like most Australians, I’m a strong supporter of a well-managed, orderly migration program. In my capacity as Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs I’ve advocated for Australia to play our part in humanitarian refugee programs, particularly in crisis situations where women and girls suffer under violent, misogynistic regimes.

Australia has a long and proud history of welcoming migrants from across the world and embracing those who make our country home. But a disorderly, unsustainable level of profit-driven temporary student migration undermines our capacity to do that, while also driving up the cost of living for all residents and citizens. The Albanese Government needs to be much better at sensibly managing migration in conjunction with proper infrastructure planning.

*This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury newspaper on 17 November 2023.