Big corporations can so often be relied upon to put their short-term profits over everything else from public good right down to even their long-term survival.
We saw that in spades over the past fortnight with greedy power companies sitting at the roulette or poker table of Australia’s electricity grid, bluffing, raising bids, holding, or speculating on whether another oligopolitical supplier will hold out for the big one or cash in and take the profits now.
In that environment they could risk gambling themselves out of business or make windfall profits for their shareholders. And they did.
It was raw capitalism, “regulated” by a feeble, straw regulator.
The last thing on the power companies’ mind was the orderly provision of electricity to the nation’s consumers.
Fancy an electricity supplier, whether fossil or renewable, but usually a gas-based supplier, deliberately withholding electricity supply in time of dire need in the hope that the demand would get even more desperate and retailers would become willing to pay even higher astronomical prices for electricity so the supplier’s profits would go through the roof and too bad for the wrapped-in-blankets consumers who have to pay for the passed-on costs.
Much was spoken about political integrity in the election campaign. Great. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at least has a deal of control over that. He can discipline errant Labor Ministers and MPs and can influence the Parliament as a whole.
But he faces a greater challenge in ensuring corporate Australia behaves itself. If he doesn’t, he will be blamed, just as the Coalition was rightly condemned for dragging its heels on banks behaving badly; for allowing the for-profit nursing homes to abuse their elderly clients; and for doing nothing effective on renewables because it would offend their fossil donors.
Examples of corporate selfishness abound – individually and industrywide. However, there is one example of corporate selfishness and short-sightedness in Australia that transcends the rest: the incessant calls and demands by business to ramp up immigration so it has a cheap pool of labour and a way to hold workers in check.
Then Prime Minister John Howard started the ramp up. Industrial relations dominated his agenda throughout his political life. He ramped up immigration not because he was enamoured of multiculturalism, but because he swallowed the idea that a cheap labour pool would dampen union activity and worker rights and create a pool of unemployed at the ready.
Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd kept it up because as a player on the world stage he “likes the idea of a Big Australia”.
What will Albanese do? With any luck he will be like many of us who have taken joy at seeing so many “Staff Wanted” signs in shops, cafes, restaurants and elsewhere that appeared as immigration was effectively halted in early 2020 because of Covid.
Unemployment plummeted, against all predictions. The minimum wage has risen. It is nice to be wanted.
But now we are “living with Covid” – despite more deaths in 2022 than 2020 and 2021 combined – business is back to old tricks, demanding cheap labour be brought in to be exploited and to put pressure on local workers. The demands completely ignore the long-term economic, social, and environmental damage in the form of suppressed wages; infrastructure stress; health queues, congestion, and destruction of agricultural land and wildlife habitat for housing.
High immigration makes things harder for the broad mass of people, including the migrants of all colours and creeds who have settled here.
Albanese should put full employment, higher wages, and the environment ahead of the short-sighted demands of business.
Australia’s need for high immigration is over. We have benefitted immensely, both socially and economically, from the program from the end of World War II to about the 1990s. Thereafter, a good cost-benefit analysis would show it has been downhill.
During Covid lock-down periods many people thought that post-Covid would be a time for a major rethink about a whole range of policies. That has manifested itself in a change of Government.
There are, however, disturbing signs that the new Government is still wedded to same-old views on immigration.
Sounds like increased immigration to me.
A major defect in Australia’s immigration program is that the Minister can decide the level of immigration without reference to the other two levels of government that bear the brunt of the infrastructure and services cost: the states and local government.
Another defect is the lack of debate about what the intake should be and what it would mean across the economy and environment in the long term.
A single minister should not have the power to set the intake, even if the minister does consult others. This is especially true because corporate and industry-association donors have the most influential voice.
The intake level should be at least debated in Parliament and even be an instrument disallowable by either House of Parliament. The people should have a greater say.
And given the thoughts about Covid resets, perhaps the intake level should have to be approved by the National Cabinet.
It could save Albanese some grief. If people think we are going back to pre-Covid same-old Big Australia for the benefit of big business and to hell with the consequences for the broad mass of people, it will cost Labor electorally with more votes going to the Greens.
But Albanese is probably smart enough to know that. He is not as beholden to business as Howard and is more in tune with workers and not as self-important as Rudd.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 21 June 2021.
Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor | ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia