• Opinion
  • February 15, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 0

Regional Australia needs immigrants — but forcing them there isn’t the answer

Opinion: Finding migrants who want to live in rural areas is possible with the right policy

This opinion piece was written by Jack Archer, CEO of the Regional Australia Institute. It appears in our refugees and migration and resilient rural communities newsfeeds.

Over the last few weeks in Australia, there has been growing speculation about a federal government plan to increase regional migration. Five-year regional visas, an agriculture visa and  reforms to designated area migration agreements have all been flagged in media articles.

At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) this is an issue we are closely monitoring — as are many regional communities across the country.

While immigration numbers remain a hot topic, the reason we need to rethink our migration system in Australia is not only to alleviate congestion levels in our big cities, but also to address the workforce needs in many of our regional cities and towns.

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Currently, the migration system in Australia can’t respond to that workforce demand outside Melbourne, Sydney, and south-east Queensland.

However, by force of habit, most Australians will assert if asked that there are no jobs in regional Australia. This damaging and pernicious generalisation doesn’t stand up to simple scrutiny.

This view is often pushed by those who should be better informed. I would encourage them to consult the latest statistics and to take the time to talk to businesses and local leaders in places like Kalgoorlie, Warrnambool, the South Coast of Victoria, Orana region, and the Riverina in NSW.

This effort will confirm that getting permanent workers to take up existing opportunities in local industries and services is a major constraint.

In the last two years, the figures that we have been monitoring show that job vacancies in regions around Australia have gone up by 20 percent. This is in stark contrast to our major capital cities where the figures have only risen by 10 percent

Of course, there will always be some regions at the wrong end of a business cycle, and there are certainly areas with entrenched unemployment challenges. But this is also true of the major cities which are generally assumed to be fountains of opportunity for all.

Many other regions are chronically short of additional workers, have been so for many years and will become more so as the local population ages.

I completely agree with those who’ve argued recently that forcing migrants to go to regions won’t work. It is also not necessary. We should not try to use visa conditions to force or convince the thousands of urban international students seeking a pathway to permanent residency into regional areas. These potential migrants, in the majority of cases, are not the right fit for regions.

Instead, we need a migration system that facilitates people with the right skills for regional work and who hail from regional and rural areas overseas.

We know there are many migrants who aspire to be part of our regional communities. We also know there are many regional communities who are ready to welcome them.

The additional good news is that reform can be done simply and quickly.

Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMA) are an existing policy that can be adapted to prioritise regions with specific job shortages that can’t be filled by local workers.

Future agreements need to be simpler and less onerous to implement, as well as being better aligned to the diversity of regional job shortages. Agreements should also be reached with regions within a three month period, rather than two years. All of this is readily achievable if the government is willing to reform and proactively implement this existing policy.

At the RAI, we have documented some incredible examples of places around the country where communities have embraced migration.

This week in Bendigo, a new research report has found that in net present value terms, the total economic impact from the regional resettlement of the Karen population on the Bendigo economy is estimated to have been $67.1 million over a ten year period.

Furthermore, an extra 177 full-time-equivalent jobs were created in the local economy, as a direct result of the Karen resettlement.

Australia needs to prioritise regional workforce needs.

A five-year visa could help, but to be honest, we don’t think it is necessary. A few changes to the existing DAMA policy, and some resources for local communities to help welcome migrants, would go a long towards addressing the workforce shortage experienced in so many areas across regional Australia. — Jack Archer

(Picture credit: Pexels)


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