Politics Analysis

Labor commits to strengthening regional migration

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(Cartoon by Kandukuru Nagarjun | Flickr)

The Labor Government's recent discussion paper on migration to regional areas of Australia shows promise but fails to fully address key concerns prevalent in regional migration, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.

THE LABOR GOVERNMENT has released a public consultation paper on regional visas. These are visas designed to help regional areas of Australia – essentially away from the major capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – access the skilled labour they need.

A bit of history

Since 1995 when the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) started, governments have tried to assist regional Australia to access the skilled labour they need. The range of visas to assist regional Australia were steadily expanded and were collectively called State-Specific and Regional Migration (SSRM) mechanisms.

The key characteristic of these visas was that they were based on support or nomination by a state/territory government or a regional authority. They comprised:

  • Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS)
  • State/territory nominated visas
  • State/territory nominated business skills visas
  • Skilled regional visas

The Government reported on these visas under the SSRM rubric until and including 2017-18, when under then-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the Government ceased reporting on them in this way.

(Source: Migration program statistics | homeaffairs.gov.au)

The decline in the number of SSRM visas was becoming embarrassing, especially as in 2017-18, Dutton abolished the RSMS to new applications and severely constricted other SSRMs.

While the percentage of SSRMs increased in 2017-18, that was due to a significantly reduced skill stream.

He did that on the basis of zero analysis, nor any public consultation. Reporting on the percentage of SSRMs from 2017-18 onwards would have become even more embarrassing.  

So reporting under the SSRM rubric ceased.

However, the decline in the use of SSRMs started when Scott Morrison was Immigration Minister. Morrison was too busy marketing his boat turnbacks to worry about the details of immigration policy.

In 2019, Scott Morrison announced his so-called 'Population Plan'. The plan actually said nothing about Australia’s future population. The headline was that Morrison was going to ‘bust congestion’ by:

  • Cutting the migration program from 190,000 to 160,000. That wasn’t actually true because Dutton had already unilaterally cut the program to 168,000 in 2017-18; and
  • Increase the use of regional visas to redirect migrant settlements away from the major cities. In reality, Morrison did little more than make a few ham-fisted changes to existing visas – particularly the regional employer-sponsored visa that replaced the RSMS – and some nomenclature changes.

It was classic "Scotty from Marketing".

Recent developments in state-nominated and regional visas

Since the most recent construct of these visas, the outcomes have been as outlined:

(Source: Overseas Migration Statistics | abs.gov.au)

A much larger skill was delivered after international borders re-opened and the new Labor Government increased the size of the program.

While the size of the state/territory nominated visa and the regional visa were broadly stable since 2022-23, the ability of states/territories to nominate more skilled migrants in 2023-24 was constrained because there was a large backlog of existing nominations that limited the allocation each state/territory could be given.

That angered a number of state/territory governments.

To address that, the Labor Government is likely to provide a larger allocation for these visas in 24-25. That is partly being accommodated by reducing the size of the skilled independent category.

The Government could have also done that in 22-23 rather than wear a year’s worth of flack from state/territory governments.

Regional migration issues

The regional migration discussion paper proposes five objectives for regional migration:

  • Raising living standards through supporting the unique skills needs of the regions.
  • Ensuring a fair go in the workplace by making sure that visa settings do not contribute to migrant worker exploitation and support the wages and conditions of regional workers.
  • Building stronger communities by planning for regional migration and giving all communities the opportunity to benefit from migration.
  • Strengthening Australia’s international relationships by using regional migration settings to support stronger international relationships and connect Australia’s regions with our international partners.
  • Making the system work by providing tailored approaches to migration without being overly complex.

These are fine objectives but do not address the most fundamental indicator of the success of regional migration visas. That is the extent to which the selected skilled migrants settle in regional Australia for an acceptable period of time.

This reporter was involved in administering these visas for over a decade. If more than 50 per cent of skilled migrants were still living in regional Australia after five years, that would be an indicator of success.

The discussion paper states that:

'For provisional visa holders who are required to stay in the regions for three years before they can apply for a permanent visa, a quarter of them move away once they have obtained a permanent visa'

That is interesting but it is important the government can track and regularly publish data on the extent to which migrants elected under different regional migration visas remain in regional areas after selected periods of time.

The regional migration discussion paper is being released shortly after the Government released a discussion paper on the points test. This is important because regional migration visas are heavily dependent on the points test used by potential migrants to enter an Expression of Interest (EOI) into the skill select system.

State and territory governments draw on these EOIs to nominate skilled migrants for both the state and territory nominated visa, as well as the regional visa. The Commonwealth also uses these EOIs to issue invitations in the skilled independent category.

Other questions the discussion paper raises include:

  • the need to simplify Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs) as these are far too bespoke with too many concessions including in terms of skills, skilled work experience, English language and salary levels. There is a strong case for simplification.
  • reform of the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) program to reduce the risk of exploitation as well as occupational health and safety risks. The introduction of a simple English language requirement would help in this regard. There would be merit in doing the same for the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) visa where the death and injury rate is unacceptably high.

The discussion paper again suggests the Government will adopt a multi-year framework for migration management. If that relates to a framework for managing net migration, that would be excellent.

If it relates to the management of the migration program with no indication of any direction for change over the coming years, that would be meaningless.

This reporter recalls former Immigration Minister Gerry Hand making much about the multi-year planning of the migration program in the early 1990s.

However, it meant little as the Federal Government always reviewed the program each year and reset it as needed.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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