Our Director, Constantine (Con) Paxinos, recently provided testimony to the Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Migration as part of the Migration Institute of Australia (MIA) delegation. The public hearing was convened to allow the Committee to ask questions and receive oral submissions into its inquiry ‘Migration, Pathway to Nation Building.’

Several issues were discussed, in particular, Con spoke about the importance of supporting regional Australia through migration policy.

What Were The Terms Of Reference For The Inquiry?

The inquiry was convened in order to examine and report on Australia’s migration system, specifically focusing on the following issues:

  • the role of permanent migration in nation building, cultural diversity and social cohesion;
  • immigration as a strategic enabler of vibrant economies and socially sustainable communities in our cities and regional hubs;
  • attraction and retention strategies for working migrants to Australia;
  • policy settings to strengthen skilled migrant pathways to permanent residency;
  • strengthening labour market participation and the economic and social contribution of migrants, including family and humanitarian migrants and the partners of working migrants; and
  • the role of settlement services and vocational training in utilising migrant experiences, knowledge, and opportunities.

What Were Con’s Key Points At The Hearing?

In providing his testimony to the Committee, Con made the following key points.

Border Closures Have Taught Us The Importance Of Migration To Australia

In his introductory comments, Con noted that we are now witnessing the impact that a two-year border closure has had on the nation’s economy, society and businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – and that is widespread and systemic skills shortages at crisis levels for many industries.

What we now know is that the migration system, from a skilled migration perspective, was working quite well up until the border closure as it was helping to fill skill shortages. But after closing the borders, we now have widespread, crisis-level shortages. And so what we can say is that although there were a lot of areas where improvement was warranted, broadly, the system was actually working. Any changes to the migration system should be well considered, to avoid any unintended effects.

What Does A Successful Migration Strategy Look Like?

The Chair of the committee made the point that the system pre-COVID was a growing reliance on temporary workers, including international students, backpackers and seasonal workers, to fill skill shortages, especially in regional areas. When the borders closed, these visa categories were unable to operate and it revealed Australia’s reliance on the temporary visa program. This inquiry is looking at the balance that is needed between skilled migration and temporary migration, with pathways to permanent residency. It was noted that there is a place in Australia for temporary visas, but that we need to develop a holistic population strategy. Con was asked what he thinks a successful migration strategy looks like.

From a regional migration policy perspective, Con refuted the commentary that regional migration policy has not been effective, making reference to the recent migration review report handed to the Minister for Home Affairs, which stated that the employment outcomes for regional migrants were higher than the national average.

Con noted that the impact of migration on regional areas is profound and that he is concerned by the direction of migration policy with regard to supporting regional areas.

He noted that from a migration perspective, it is absolutely critical that the immigration system has special kinds of visas or certain streams of visas that make it more accessible for migrants to access if they are moving or migrating to a regional area. This is because of the need for a levelling of the playing field. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are far more well-known around the world and so migrants are attracted to those areas. This makes it difficult for employers in regional areas to attract talent. In the past 10 to 20 years that there has been a regional migration policy, the immigration system has given regional employers that leg-up, to put them on more of a level playing field with the more popular cities.

Con made the point that we need to protect the ability for employers to attract talent in regional areas by giving them some access that is not available in non-regional areas.

He also noted that retention is a marker for the success of a regional migration policy. Having migrants coming to a regional area just to get a visa and then moving to more well-known cities like Sydney and Melbourne is not the purpose of an effective regional migration policy. The best candidates for regional migration are students, and potentially, backpackers, who are coming in at their formative years, setting down their roots and developing an identity at a young age, becoming what they would see as a local in that area, where they may also have formed relationships. We therefore need campuses in regional locations to attract international students to study there.

We also need employer-sponsored skilled visas in regional areas. There you have an employment income tied to the visa, and so it’s inextricably linked. The migrant is going to be supported by their employment.

There are many universities and campuses located around states that are considered regional for migration purposes. We can use these existing opportunities for international students to study in what we classify as regional areas.

Adelaide, for instance, is a regional area defined by the Migration Regulations. In that state, there is an issue with population decline. Without migration, Adelaide would see a declining population, resulting in economic and social detriments later on if that population decline is not addressed. Adelaide has plenty of university options and education options, which we already have in many regional centres. And so focusing on international students and providing them with opportunities in regional areas would support an effective migration policy.

How Should A Regional Area Be Defined For Migration Purposes?

It was noted that we need to redefine what ‘regional’ is in order for genuinely regional places to have the kind of migration that is needed for our regions. Con was asked to comment on the definition of ‘regional’ for migration purposes.

Con made the point that we need a tiering system. We currently have category 1, 2 and 3 regional areas as part of the definition. We should be looking at how we categorise regions for this purpose. For example, a regional area such as Mildura, which is located in regional Victoria, has more special needs requirements, in terms of the immigration system, than Adelaide has. We should be forming policy around that. And so Mildura should have access to things that Adelaide does not have access to, and Adelaide should have access to things that Sydney doesn’t have access to.

Importance Of Permanent Residency Pathways For Student Visa Holders

Con was asked to comment on how important is it that student visas provide a pathway to permanent residency in Australia.

He noted that it is very important to have pathways to permanent residency for international students because we are teaching these young people the best of what we’ve got to teach them and then we are sending them away. We need skilled people, we have a demographic issue and we want to grow our country and our skilled population, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to want to train someone and then send them away. It also will help with the attraction of students if we are able to articulate a pathway to permanent residency. When they are committing upwards of $100,000, coming from countries where the currency exchange rate might not be very good, they’re putting a lot of effort into migrating to study in Australia. So these people are of high value and, generally, are higher performing.

Con also made the point that he thinks that there is an opportunity with secondary schooling. He noted that we need more students studying STEM subjects, and attracting students that are at school age would be even more advantageous, as we can channel them in and educate them and provide them with the training they need before they start University.

Labour Market Testing

Con was asked for his views on Labour Market Testing (LMT) and whether it should be abolished at a certain unemployment rate.

In response, he noted that by doing so, we would be applying a national average to what is a microeconomic policy. We need to come from a bottom-up perspective. There is no-one in Australia with a sophisticated enough spreadsheet to know where all the skills shortages are in Australia. The economy is very complex. Economists can’t get their predictions right. And so we need to have a system that allows an employer to say, ‘I can’t find anyone in this location, in this occupation, with this profile.’ There’s no way you can do that at a national level, a top-down approach with some broad number. That would cause all sorts of issues for individual employers, and that would have meaningful impacts on industry and regions.

If we remove the LMT requirement, as long as the employer can demonstrate that there is a shortage of that particular occupation, position, in that location then that’s the test, whatever that demonstration is and the form that it takes.

But at some point, in some form, we need some evidence that there is a shortage of that position in that location, whatever that turns out to be, as long as it’s satisfactory and allows the employer to put their hand up and say, ‘I need this person,’ rather than closing the gate. We wouldn’t want a situation where there’s a gatekeeper sitting in Canberra or Sydney with a spreadsheet saying, ‘We’ve got enough accountants; we’re not going to allow accountants,’ but there’s an employer sitting in Mildura, for instance, that needs an accountant desperately and can’t find them, and they’ve shown that they can’t find anyone. We need to have that flexibility in the system.

What Were The Key Points Made By The MIA?

The MIA delegation made the following key points:

  • it supports the Government’s intention to integrate a strategic approach to migration, which requires a whole-of-government approach to economic and productivity issues;
  • it supports a strategic and long-term approach to developing a sustainable future for Australia, which includes migration as part of Australia’s population strategy towards nation-building;
  • it supports a considered long-term strategy and policy settings with a shift towards permanent migration pathways and skilled migration to fundamentally support the role of permanent skilled migration in nation-building, cultural diversity and social cohesion where immigration takes the role as a strategic enabler to drive a vibrant economy and socially sustainable communities in our cities and our regional hubs;
  • it is concerned about the disruption caused by immigration announcements that result in confusion and create damage to Australia’s reputation;
  • it noted that a lack of regional migration policy is going to cause long-term issues for regions. Skills shortages in the regions are currently at crisis point. This can be addressed by an effective regional migration and population policy;
  • it stated that regional employer sponsored visas are not being taken up, particularly because the conditions on them are much more onerous than the visa conditions that apply to migrants who settle in the cities. Visa applicants are required to have a skills assessment. They must also remain with the same sponsoring employer in their nominated position for at least three years. They cannot change their job and they also cannot be promoted during that time. They must remain working in the same ANZSCO occupation. These overly onerous obligations prevent the sponsoring business from growing and also holds the sponsored employee back at the same level. Greater flexibility is required by employers in the regions, with employees required to perform a wider range of functions. The skilled visas are working against them in regional areas (the subclass 494 visa particularly);
  • it agrees that there needs to be labour market testing of some form; the issue is whether the system we have in place now is fit for purpose. We also have skills shortage lists, which are recognised by the Government as being occupations where we are short of skills, and at the same time, we are asking employers to spend money to test and to demonstrate, yet again, that they cannot get these people with these skills via labour market testing; and
  • it noted that visas could be made simpler, and processing could be done faster. The comparison was made to Canada in the fact that they are taking in more migrants and they are doing it faster, particularly in the time it takes to recognise overseas qualifications.

You can listen to the full hearing, including Con’s testimony, here: https://www.aph.gov.au/News_and_Events/Watch_Read_Listen/ParlView/video/1122150