Michael Pascoe: We now have 26 million reasons to work for a better Australia

What future will this little chap inherit? The Australia we do our best to build today.

What future will this little chap inherit? The Australia we do our best to build today. Photo: TND/Getty

I missed a milestone in July 27 – the arrival of the 26 millionth Australian.

(The population clock no longer sits on the home page of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), so the date slipped past me until I saw Thursday’s quarterly population stats.)

A belated welcome, whoever you might be.

If you are a newborn, you bring us promise and renewal. You invest us in the future as you become our future.

The collective love we feel for our children is both primordial and personal – the propagation of the species that drives all species; the bonds of the miracle of bringing such beautiful, innocent, dependent life into existence with all the joy and hope and fears therein.

If a wee bairn, Number 26 million, we and what we have done are your heritage. You and the world we leave you are our legacy. We tend not to consider legacy until it is too late to do much about it. Your arrival should help us focus on the now, while we can.

The 23 millionth Australian arrived in April 2013. Nobody else seemed to notice, so I presumptuously took it upon myself to bless the occasion, applying the odds to make the milestone a baby and rejoice in that anonymous small soul’s good fortune.

The 24 millionth arrived in February 2016, and my keyboard declared him or her a migrant, saluting the bravery inherent in our great migration story:

To abandon “home” with all its certainties and support, the streets and buildings and sources you know, the people and friends you grew up with, perhaps even the language you speak, is not for the fainthearted. The adventurous migrate, the people who have what we hope is that most Australian trait, the willingness to have a go. The timid stay behind, or sometimes are dragged along behind.

The ABS guessed the 25 millionth Australian arrived at 11 pm on August 7, 2018. Given the hour and the curfew most airports have, another baby.

So to maintain the balance, July’s 26 millionth can again be a migrant, part of the post-COVID resurgence in our population growth while unemployment is low and the country is calling out for workers.

Migration’s mutual benefits

The talent and drive of our migrants – the fresh eyes brought to bear on our opportunities – mean one plus one can add up to three. Both migrants and skippys can be richer.

But number 26 million also is arriving during a housing crisis – decades of bi-partisan government neglect (and worse) coming home to roost – and when the Reserve Bank is trying to weaken the economy by weakening the strong jobs market that was demonstrated by Thursday’s labour force figures.

Business would like to use new arrivals – whether permanent or temporary – to suppress the wages growth that is a healthy outcome of a strong labour market. In the short term, business has called for temporary skilled migration for all jobs earning more than $90,000 a year, with a $100,000 threshold for permanent migration.

Given the shortage of key skills, the ACTU in August agreed to increased permanent migration but wants the minimum pay for temporary skilled migrants lifted from $53,000 to $91,000.

The business lobby doesn’t like the latter bit of that. The people who run the business lobby also earn considerably more than $53,000 – and we all tend to quite like cheap labour when we go to cafes, pack our children off to day care and our elderly off to aged care.

Thus the 26 millionth Australian arrives at an interesting time – but it is always an “interesting” time.

There are challenges to overcome, better policies required and braver politicians needed to deliver them. Businesses are being forced to become more productive, the blowtorch of necessity applied to corporate bellies.

What we know is that the 26 millionth Australian will help solve those problems, as will the 27 millionth and the 28 millionth and so on. Migrants bring drive and the newborn hone our responsibility.

A season to celebrate

Maybe it’s the time of year, but it seems a good time to be optimistic about our ability to deal with our challenges – if we collectively decide we must.

Maybe it’s that combined with a lot of contemplation of the subject matter in the book I published in August.

Maybe it’s that and the proximity to two happy events: a much-wanted baby was born to friends of mine on Thursday, their joy contagious, their daughter beautiful. And earlier this month we welcomed another grandchild, a particularly handsome young man.

We are renewed by their promise – and the demands of our responsibility for what they inherit.

Happy Christmas.

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