“Immigration is extremely important to Australia, we are a country of immigration, we have been built by immigrants coming in,” Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman said.
“We need to build our skills-based immigration for the future of the country. Immigration for immigration’s sake doesn’t work but there’s always going to people who need to be brought in for other reasons, like refugees or humanitarian reasons, and that needs to be maintained.”
Mr Coleman added he “wouldn’t like to see the a cut in the numbers for skills-based immigration”.
Telstra chief executive Andy Penn highlighted the potential for immigration to help solve the telecommunications giant’s skills needs.
“Increasingly, we need more capability in software engineering. We need 1500 new roles in that space. Last year Australia produced about 1200 new software engineers. That’s the dilemma. Immigration is one of the potential solutions,” Mr Penn said.
Mayne Pharma chief executive Scott Richards said Australia was a “small country and we need the skills”. Australia was “not flush with scientists in the pharmaceuticals area,” he said, and the nation as a whole benefited if expert scientists chose to move here for their work.
If you cut immigration down to zero, say, tomorrow, your economy will slow down to buggery.
Gerry Harvey, Harvey Norman chairman
Other CEOs to highlight the importance of incoming skilled workers included: AGL chief Brett Redman; a2 Milk’s Jane Hrdlicka; Fortescue Metals Group’s Elizabeth Gaines; Bendigo and Adelaide Bank chief executive Marnie Baker; Stockland’s Mark Steinert and APA Group’s Mick McCormack.
Alongside skills, many also acknowledged that businesses generally did well from immigration because it fuelled growth in the population, giving firms a larger potential market.
The chairman of Harvey Norman, Gerry Harvey, said “anyone who’s in any sort of business mostly benefits” from immigration, and therefore cutting the intake of people “will only contribute to slowing down your economy”.
“When it’s a benefit to most businesses, it flows across the economy. If you cut immigration down to zero, say, tomorrow, your economy will slow down to buggery,” Mr Harvey said.
Suncorp chief executive Michael Cameron said: “I’d hate to see our population growth stagnate and I’d hate to see unemployment increase, so from that perspective, immigration is an important component of our economy.”
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, who was born in Ireland, said high-skilled workers had delivered “huge benefits” to the economy, and immigration continued to support economic growth. “We need really high-skilled workers and immigration is important to get that,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison signalled in December he intended to cut the permanent migration intake from 190,000 to 160,000 in the budget, saying the “roads are clogged and public transport in Sydney and Melbourne was “full.”
There was also a recognition of these problems among some of the business leaders.
The chief executive of property business GPT Group, Bob Johnston, said the country should understand that population growth supported economic activity, but he added: “We just have to make sure we invest in infrastructure and not create bottlenecks”.
The outgoing Virgin Australia chief John Borghetti, who was born in Italy, said: “You can’t just say everybody come in who wants to come in and have a party, but there’s no doubt immigration has been very good for Australia. Immigration’s important but it has to be managed.”
Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate said there was a “difficult balance” to be struck. Many European countries had been “sensitised to too much immigration,” but overall she said it was important for bringing in new talent, which the country needed.
Clancy Yeates is a business reporter.
Covering energy and policy at Fairfax Media.