The build up

With its anti-immigrant rhetoric and risky financial policies, Peter Dutton’s budget reply ignores evidence-based solutions to Australia's housing crisis

“When you have no solutions, blame immigrants.” – Australian proverb. This seems to be Peter Dutton’s election strategy based on his budget reply last week. Dutton proposed three key measures to address housing affordability: allowing first home buyers to access $50,000 from their superannuation for a deposit, reducing the permanent migration program to 140,000, and implementing a two-year ban on foreign investors.

Aside from being self-defeating through its inflationary impact, Peter ‘Reverse Robin Hood’ Dutton’s plan to let first home buyers raid their super could severely undermine a generation’s retirement security. While there’s disagreement about how much, some experts warn that even unleashing a small portion of our $3.7 trillion in super assets risks driving up housing prices by as much as 9 per cent. Great news if you’re a multi-millionaire property investor like Dutton! Perhaps less so when considering that the average, 30-year-old Australian has just $33,571 in super for men and $29,144 for women (weighted averages).

His policy would also dampen investment in growth industries, renewables and innovation by diverting funds away from the $1.3 trillion responsible investment market which represents 40 per cent of our superfund assets today. Depleting super early would force young Australians to lean more heavily on government payments in retirement and slow our economy. Next.

There are reasonable concerns about current record-high immigration levels, driven largely by pent-up demand from reduced arrivals during the pandemic. Two-thirds of voters believe last year’s intake was too high, and the LNP clearly thinks there’s votes in slashing immigration. However, given nearly half of all Australians have an immigrant parent, Dutton’s outlandish accusation that immigrants are causing congestion and making it harder to access schools, childcare, and doctors – basically blaming them for all our ills – might not resonate for long. This ignores that many immigrants are teachers, childcare workers, and doctors.

The Opposition Leader will need to clarify exactly which immigrants he plans to block and from which sectors to achieve his proposed 160,000 annual cut. International students alone contributed $37.6 billion pre-COVID and are crucial for funding universities, which drive $5 in economic returns for every $1 invested in research. Temporary skilled migrants help address critical workforce shortages, while backpackers support agriculture in rural and regional Australia.

Any cuts to international student numbers without addressing underlying funding pressures would force further hits to university staff, courses, and research. We shouldn’t hold our breath for Dutton to announce plans to fully fund the education sector. And while limiting foreign real estate investment seems reasonable, given just 0.22 per cent of the total properties sold in Australia were bought by foreign investors it’s hardly a game changer. That’s right, just 1339 properties were foreign bought in 2021-22, tiny compared to the 2.2 million Australians who own investment properties. Perhaps we should focus our attention on those investors, given that 70 per cent of them own multiple, while other Australians struggle to purchase just one…to live in.

Colonial Australia is a country built on immigration and by immigrants. We should pride ourselves on our multiculturalism and recognise our diversity as our strength. Scapegoating new Australians distracts us from the genuine and varied solutions available to us. We should call out Dutton’s divisive rhetoric for what it is—a racist dog whistle that only offers destruction when we need constructive solutions (both literally and figuratively). Let’s focus on evidence-based policies, building public housing, repealing concessions for investors, and properly funding our healthcare and education sectors. By addressing the root causes of the housing and cost of living crises, we can ensure secure housing and affordable lives without compromising retirement savings or our multicultural society.

Jack Toohey is a writer and filmmaker.

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