Originally published in the Australian, 23 February 2018
One thing I am not going to cop is gratuitous criticism from ministers who are only in government because I led them there. It is the prime minister’s right to choose his ministerial team and, given some of the policies of this government, I’m happy to serve on the backbench.
Even so, I would be failing the taxpayers who provide my salary if I didn’t offer some thoughts on how our country’s pressing problems might better be addressed.
This, after all, is the job of government: to strive never to make problems worse and wherever possible, consistent with principle, to try to make people’s lives easier.
It is an undoubted fact that real wages are growing more slowly now and that housing is less affordable than at any time in recent decades. It is a further undoubted fact that getting around our major cities is becoming more difficult because infrastructure has not kept up with population growth.
Immigration is certainly not the only contributor but, at double the rate this decade than last, it is most assuredly one of them. As I stressed in my speech on Tuesday night – which I suspect ministerial critics have not read – I don’t want to stop immigration, just reduce its rate until infrastructure, housing starts and integration can catch up.
You’d think a government that’s lost the past 27 Newspolls might be curious about how it could lift its game. You’d think a government that has too few policy differences with Labor might consider a change of emphasis that would make clearer the choice of who’s really on the voters’ side. But no, ministers have gone out of their way to attack a colleague who knows more about winning elections than anyone in the parliament.
Acting Prime Minister Mathias Cormann said I was wrong to criticise the experts. Actually, experts provide advice but it’s government’s job to make decisions. If government were required to take public-service advice, there’d be no point bothering with elections.
One of this government’s failings is that it too often takes advice from the “experts” who got us into difficulties in the first place.
Trade Minister Steve Ciobo said my argument was “lazy” and “inaccurate” because migrants have brought prosperity to Australia. No one denies this, Steve, but does that mean that immigration must always add a city the size of Adelaide to our population every five years?
Then there was Scott Morrison, who claimed reducing immigration had never been discussed while I was prime minister. This is false. I vehemently disagreed with the Treasury line that we couldn’t cut immigration because that would harm the budget although we didn’t adjust the official target because immigration was then trending down, by almost 50,000, since Labor’s last full year.
It’s wrong in principle to let Treasury’s accounting rules determine what’s in our national interest. It’s ridiculous to accept that boosting immigration is just budget upside, as if Treasury really believed that population policy could fix the deficit. Most of all, it’s wrong to have a senior minister who invents things to score a cheap point against someone on his own side.