Well, kind of....
Every year the Australian government issues around 100,000 working holiday visas to travellers between the age of 18-30 and who come from a country which isn't Iraq, North Korea or Afghanistan (well it might be a bit more specific than that but you get the gist). This means that at any one point the ratio of working-holiday backpackers to Australian residents is 1:200 (based on the fact that there are roughly 20 million Australians, give or take a few for those lost in the bush). One in every two-hundred! And that's not including the hardy-rucksack transporters who visit on a 3-month tourist visa.
The majority of backpackers here are however on a working-holiday. And it is this group of travellers who contribute the most to keeping Australia running smoothly. For example, if the various Europeans, and a few North Americans, who slave away in vineyards, orchards and various other places of greenery all stopped, the shelves at Woolworths & Coles fruit & veg departments would be bare. Albeit there might be a few nitbits about, picked by the Vietnamese, but the majority of the work is backpacker, back-breaking stuff. I have to admit that when I first experienced fruit picking work and saw the Vietnamese workers toiling away, I was seriously impressed. I thought if ever there was a nation that should export fruit-pickers, it should be Vietnam. I wondered to myself whether there was a university of fruit-pickery in Hanoi, founded perhaps by Ho Chi Minh himself in honour of the many fruit trees lost during the American war!? Unfortuneately not. Although excellent workers, my oriental horticultural heroes didn't quite turn out to be the superstars of fruit that I had envisaged.
As a result, backpackers fill thousands of fruit-picking and packing jobs each year all over Australia. The government run job-search website even has a specific "harvest-trail" section, aimed at backpackers looking to earn a few extra dollars. However, it's not just in agriculture that backpackers are the essential workforce. In almost any job that doesn't appeal to the average Australian you'll find a backpacker slaving away. Working in roadhouses, helping out on a cattle station, kitchen-hand work or various other jobs that involve cleaning a "dunnie." It's the humble backpacker that keeps things running smoothly. And the Australian government know this! A few months ago, Canberra decided to change the rules so as to make more use of the backpacker labour. Formerly, a working-holiday visa was a once in a lifetime affair, but now you can have a second visa if you did 3 months of harvest work during your first stay. Perhaps if we hang on a bit longer, John Howard and his cronies will offer a residency visa to anyone willing to pledge allegiance to the fruit trees?
Anyhow, despite being a sought after labour force, the traveller still has to give up 29 cents in every dollar that he or she earns, to the Australian tax coffers in Canberra. Although technically you are entitled to claim the tax back, in nine months travelling around this fine country I have only met one couple who actually knew how to go about claiming it back and were actively pursuing their cash. Most people can't be bothered with the bureaucracy. So backpackers are contributing thousands of dollars to the Australian government and the only service they get in return is a Medicare card and maybe the possibility of a free stay at the Woomera detention centre if they overstay their visa? Free accommodation!
Aside from ploughing cash into Peter Costello's pocket, backpackers aid the economy in a more simple way. The money they earn in Australia, is spent in Australia. The obvious beneficiary is the tourist industry. Thousands of young nomads roaming the country with cash to burn means that hostels and campsites have a steady supply of customers, even in the quiet seasons. The national park services also get a steady cash flow. Uluru Kata-Tjuta national park alone could probably clear a sizeable chunk of third-world debt, what with its $25 a head fee. And mechanics all over, benefit from backpackers who travel in cars that should have been turned into tins for baked beans years ago. Only a traveller on a tight budget would look at a Holden or Ford with saggy axles and bald tyres and think, "She's a beaut!" Then willingly hand over several notes of large denomination, believing that their new tin can will safely get them around one of the largest countries on earth. Only to find themselves 3 weeks later standing in a mechanics in a backwater town called Woolyrooballs, speaking to some guy called Bruce about the complexities of having an engine that is essentially buggered.
Where would Australia be without the backpacker? It's a question worth thinking about...