Monday, 14 October 2019
New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019. This bill, I fear, is more of a plan to get a headline than a plan to get migrants into the regional areas of Australia. Of course all of us would support the idea of getting migrants into regional Australia, and of course the government claims that the aim of this legislation is to, together with the new visas that have been created, change the geographic make-up of visa holders by increasing the number of people settling outside major cities in 'regional Australia'. But, like so much else that this government does, we have here yet another marketing strategy rather than an actual strategy that might be directed at achieving a worthy aim.
Labor supports the broad intent of this bill, and the members of the Labor Party who have spoken previously on the bill have, I hope, made that clear. And, as with previous Labor speakers, I join in expressing some very serious concerns that this legislation and the two new visas that the legislation supports have not been properly thought through; are not supported by additional resources; are not supported by any program; and are not supported by additional services, particularly settlement services, that might be thought to be necessary if new skilled visa holders are to be settled in regional Australia. None of that has been explained by the government, and nor has the government put forward any evidence to suggest that this new arrangement that it has with the two new skilled regional visas is, in fact, going to achieve the aim that the government has said that it will.
I want to first comment on a curious aspect of this legislation. The two new visas that the government has announced are the subclass 491 visa, the skilled work regional provisional visa for skilled people who are nominated by a state or territory government or sponsored by an eligible family member to live and work in regional Australia; and the subclass 494 visa, the skilled employer-sponsored regional provisional visa, enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia. It's said by the government that these two visas are going to account for some 23,000 places out of the 160,000 permanent places that are to be available each year according to the government's current target. But the curious aspect of this bill is that the bill itself does not create these two new visas, nor does the bill do anything to specify what 'regional Australia' is for the purposes of these two visas.
Instead, this bill makes consequential amendments to a whole range of other legislation that is administered by the Department of Social Services, the Department of Education and the Attorney-General's Department. Specifically, the bill amends these acts: the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999, the Disability Services Act 1986, the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Act 2012, the Higher Education Support Act 2003, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013, the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 and the Social Security Act 1991. That's a curious position for what is said to be a very important new measure that the government is bringing forward.
What has in fact occurred here is that the government has put all the operative parts of this new measure in delegated legislation, which is a favoured device of this government. Rather than bringing before this House substantive matters as part of legislation, we get an overreliance on delegated authority. Something that should very much have been the subject of the primary legislation so that it could have been properly examined and properly debated here has been left to delegated legislation. The establishment of the visas themselves and the locations to which they'll apply are not part of this proposed legislation that's before the House today. Instead, they are subject to ongoing change by the minister, through regulation. It's not a particularly desirable legislative practice. It's something that the government has done a great deal in its more than six years in office. It's something that the government should reconsider.
To return to the substance of the scheme that this bill goes part-way towards implementing, the first proposition I wish to advance is that, despite multiple speakers and the minister having suggested that somehow this is going to form part of the government's 'congestion-busting program', at most it would amount to a drop in the bucket. Let's put this in a bit of context. Over the last 30 years, the population of Australia has increased by around 50 per cent. Over the next 30 years, the population of Australia is projected to increase by another 50 per cent. You've only got to look at the city that I come from to see the huge rise in population from around just over three million in 1989 to around five million today. That's more than 50 per cent growth in that 30-year period, and that's consistent with the projections for growth in Australia. Most of the growth will be in our larger cities. It reflects economic growth and economic opportunity. Of course, it poses a huge challenge to policymakers. It's one that Labor has been grappling with, it's one that Labor grappled with in government and it's one that all Australian governments will need to grapple with: that huge increase in Australia's population and particularly the huge increases that we are seeing in our big cities.
What we know is that road congestion is getting worse. We know that commuters in Sydney are experiencing a huge average journey of 71 minutes to and from work, Melburnians are experiencing an average journey of 65 minutes to and from work, and very many of our fellow Australians are experiencing much worse congestion and much longer journeys to work. Our road congestion costs are predicted to more than double by 2031. And what do we have by way of response from this government? We have them suggesting that the creation of two new subclasses of visa, which are going to commence in November this year, is somehow a congestion-busting measure. It is laughable! It is laughable as soon as one hears it stated.
What we actually know is that the Reserve Bank governor has called for infrastructure investment to be brought forward. He's made that call seven times since the election alone. He is making that call, of course, to try to ensure that our sluggish economy is kick-started but he is also making that call because he understands the economic imperative of doing something about the absence of public transport and roads in our big cities. That's what infrastructure spending needs to be directed to. What we know is that this same Morrison government that's putting forward a boast about the way in which these visa classes are to be something that's going to bust congestion has failed to spend a cent from its Urban Congestion Fund in the whole of 2018-19, even though $40 million was forecast to be spent in the budget that was handed down by this government in April of this year. All we are getting from the Morrison government is a feeble call for the states to do more—not actual infrastructure spending from the government, but a feeble call. It was most recently made by the Treasurer, who asked the states to identify some projects on infrastructure that they might perhaps start to do something about. What we've got is a government that's trying to use its pretend population policy and these new visa classes to cover up its utter failure to invest in infrastructure.
There is so much more that could be said, not about the actual proposition of this bill—which is a proposition that says it's a good idea if we can get migrants to go to regional Australia—but about the complete absence of policy, the complete absence of programs and the complete absence of any attention paid to services that would in any way be thought necessary to support migrants who might end up in regional areas.
As the member for Scullin reminds me, it is extraordinary, particularly given that we had a report commissioned by the government last year—done by Peter Shergold, a very eminent former senior Australian public servant—into integration, employment and settlement outcomes for refugees and humanitarian entrants. It is suggested in this report—which the government has not released—that, in line with the very many submissions that were made to Professor Shergold, the government needs to do a great deal more in relation to settlement services. That's got obvious relevance to whether or not skilled migrants are going to end up in the regions. It's got obvious relevance as well to where refugees and humanitarian entrants are going to go in Australia.
We have had a decline in settlement services spending under the six years of this government. We have no attention being paid to and certainly no publication of the findings of the Shergold review, nor any response to the findings of the Shergold review. That is emblematic of the failure of this government to bring in policy designed not for getting a headline but to actually support the outcome that is claimed. The outcome that's desired here is getting migrants into regional Australia. What we want to see is attention paid by the government to what support services there are going to be if there are to be migrants in regional Australia. That will include whether or not there are going to be the kinds of settlement services that the recent but as yet unreleased Shergold report deals with.
There is another whole area of interaction with another area of policy that this government has completely failed to explain. It is something that has been drawn to the government's attention repeatedly—that is, how these two new visa classes are going to interact with the very large industry that Australia has in international education. It is quite apparent that the government has completely failed to understand the complexity of the issues that have to be considered when making even minor changes to visas that affect Australia's very important export earner—the international education system. These interactions are very complex. There can't be a quick fix. But we would suggest that the reputation of Australia's international education services, and the high standards that Australia provides in international education, are much too important to rush into, as the government appears to be doing here, without analysing what the full effects are going to be.
One small matter—or perhaps not a small matter; it is potentially a large matter, depending on how it's administered in the future—is the definition of what is a designated regional area. The government has made regulations that define being in regional Australia as 'not residing in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or the Gold Coast or Perth'. Griffith University, in a submission to the Senate committee that looked at this bill, made this point. They said that:
… three State Capital Cities, Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart as well as the national capital, Canberra, are considered regional for the purposes of Skilled Regional Visas that include International Students. It is particularly difficult to comprehend why Adelaide, with a population of 1,315,346, more than twice that of the Gold Coast's 663,321 according to 2018 data, is considered Regional over the Gold Coast.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities also raised concerns with the minister's definition. The ATN submission says it notes that:
… the regional/rural classification creates some inequalities in relation to Perth being excluded from the definition, while areas such as Canberra, Adelaide and Wollongong would be included. Perth is considered one of the most isolated cities in Australia and as a consequence has been at a considerable disadvantage in relation to attracting international students to the state. A reconsideration of this classification would assist in addressing this matter.
The ad hoc and arbitrary manner in which the minister has drafted this definition, which he has not attempted to support, is of concern. It is certainly something that needs to be looked at, and there are real concerns, particularly as have already been expressed by Queensland members of parliament, about the way in which this has been approached.
In March this year, the Morrison government announced a reduction in the permanent visa migration ceiling from 190,000 to 160,000. Part of that announcement was the introduction of two new skilled visa classes for skilled regional visas. Labor supports the objectives of the new skilled regional visas. That certainly is a change to the geographic distribution of visa holders by increasing the number who reside outside the major cities. Significantly, it's not as if the bill is going to define regional Australia for the purposes of these two new visa classes. The minister, through regulation, will define living in regional Australia as not residing in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or the Gold Coast. So it takes a pretty broad brush to regional Australia.
Whilst I say that Labor is supportive of the objectives of the bill, I would particularly like to address, as I go on, the amendments moved by the member for Scullin. But, before that, I'll say that the bill introduces two new classes of visas. The first is subclass 491, which is the skilled work regional provisional visa, for skilled people who are nominated by the state or territory government, or sponsored by an eligible family member, to live and work in a regional area. The second one is subclass 494, the skilled employer-sponsored regional provisional visa, enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia. Clearly, either of those classes of people will be required, if the bill is passed, to live for at least three years in a regional area before they'll become eligible for a permanent visa. It is predicated on moving people—certainly with these visa classes—out of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The purpose of that, according to the government, is to decrease the level of congestion which occurs in those main cities. But what the government has failed to outline, quite frankly, is how they intend to provide support for the almost 23,000 visa holders living in regional Australia.
I don't represent an electorate in regional Australia. However, I do represent an electorate in outer metropolitan Sydney. I do represent an electorate that does receive the vast majority of refugees and many new immigrants to this country. One of the things I have complained often about—not only in this place but to the minister directly—is the fact that, while my electorate receives the vast majority of refugees and new arrivals in this country, it certainly doesn't get the majority of finance going to settlement services to help people properly settle into this country and to help them make a valued contribution to the nation. This is what the member for Scullin's amendment goes to: he notes the government's failure, firstly, to adequately fund settlement services and, secondly, to explain the extra services that will be made available to support regional communities and the settlement of migrants under this scheme.
I can tell you that electorates like mine did have many issues associated with improper settlement in the past. The centre of my electorate is a place called Cabramatta. Those people who have been around long enough will recall that it was only about 10 to 15 years ago that Cabramatta was the centre of the heroin trade for the country. As a matter of fact, it was also the firearms exchange centre for the nation. Much of that came about because authorities at that stage did not effectively understand the value of settlement services. It is one thing to accept immigrants into this country and to work through various agencies, such as St Vincent de Paul and Mission Australia, to ensure people have clothes on their back and somewhere to live, but the idea of being able to properly settle people in this country would have had a significant impact on not developing various crime patterns which emerged as a consequence of that.
I think we have learnt a lot about settlement over the years, particularly from the time of the fall of Saigon, when the Vietnamese came to this country and then the issues that occurred in the Balkans, where we played a significant role helping people settle, to what we see now in the Middle East. You will recall that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to his credit, decided to accept 12,000 people out of the Middle East—Syrian refugees. We supported that. We think he did a decent and compassionate thing for people in need.
By the way, my community received 7,000 of those 12,000 people that came to this country. I would not have minded and I wouldn't have complained so much if we had got seven-12ths of the money that was allocated for the settlement of those people. But that was not the case. The shortfall in those areas had to be made up by the various charitable agencies out there—once again, St Vincent de Paul and other agencies—who tried to ensure that people were properly settled. They are not getting paid for it. By the way, I give credit to the various churches that operate in that space and try to help people settle.
With these regional settlement visas, again, there is a void. Nothing in this bill says how resources are going to be allocated to help people settle as a consequence of that. I note that there's been concern expressed by the chief executive of the Australian Local Government Association, Adrian Beresford-Wylie. He says the bill must ensure adequate support for visa holders and 'thus take some of the potential pressure off councils, which often have to fill service gaps when these services are not otherwise available to members of the community'.
He's quite correct in that. I know that for a fact, because the mayor of the City of Fairfield in my electorate, Mr Frank Carbone, has often made the very same point to the minister and to this government. When my area receives, and continues to receive, many of the refugees coming to this country, the resources are not adequate to ensure their proper settlement. In saying that I am trying to make a constructive criticism for the government. We're not opposing the object of this bill: the object of getting more people who come on temporary employment visas into regional areas. But what I am clearly saying to the government is that, when you do that, you can't take your eye off the fact that you need to provide the services to assist that settlement there. It is absolutely critical to do that. Otherwise the consequences can be diabolical.
So we're not opposed to the intention of the bill: to ensure that people coming on these employment related visas can live outside Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and the Gold Coast and will be there for a period of three years. But make the financial investment. Make sure that the community is protected. It is one thing to simply say that we need to have a settlement service to help people so they and their families integrate within the mainstream community. But, where that falls down or where it doesn't occur, there are consequences that flow to the community itself. I think we've been around long enough to make sure we get this right. I think by and large Australia is very much an immigrant based country. People come to this country from all quarters of the globe and, in the main, they come for two reasons: a better life for themselves and a better life for their families. Clearly, people can bring their skills and talents to bear to help progress further in this nation. What I'm saying is that we should never take for granted that, coming to a country like Australia, someone simply moves out of Mascot or moves out of their point of introduction to this country and their settlement is just taken for granted.
As the Prime Minister has said on many, many occasions, and I agree with him—as a matter of fact, Tony Abbott used to say it regularly—we are the most successful multicultural country in the world. We are successful, not because we're Australia or because he was in government or anything like that. We are successful as a multicultural country because we work at it. We are conscious of doing what is necessary to make our multiculturalism work. Part of that is affording those who arrive in this country access to proper settlement services. That's been one of the things that we have learnt over many, many years now, and which has contributed to us being a most successful multicultural country.
As I say, I'm trying to be constructive about this, because, regrettably, none of this is actually in the bill. But for all those people who are going to be invited to go to regional Australia, whether by family members or by businesses, governments or academic institutions, I think we owe it to those regional communities where people are going to go to make sure that they have the appropriate resourcing and the appropriate ability to properly settle people, peacefully and successfully, in their respective communities. I think we've got a vested interest, and we want to make this work. We want to make it work for those who are coming in on the visas. We want to make it work for those who are going to be employing these people. But, above all that, we want to make sure it works successfully for those regions where people are going to be living.
So I just think this can't be what we've seen elsewhere with the issue about settlement, where the government has gone on its way in cutting funding for critical services so that they can no longer provide adequate services in particular areas. By the way, the area where I live is one of those. What I'm saying is that if the government is right in what it wants to do here—getting people out of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and the Gold Coast as the points of destination for these work visas—you've got to properly resource those organisations and not be in this realm of continual cutbacks and simply thinking that everything is going to work because people have come in on these temporary visas. We need to make sure that it works for them, it works for their sponsors and, as I say, it works for the local community they're going to be going to.
So my request of the House is that it think seriously about this. Whilst we won't stand in the way of the passage of these bills, because I understand and support the intent of them, I would ask the House to look seriously at the amendment moved by the member for Scullin:
…"the House notes the Government's failure to:
(1) adequately fund settlement services; and
(2) explain what extra services will be made available to support regional communities and the settlement of migrants under this scheme".
I rise to speak on the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 and the amendment put forward by the member for Scullin. I thank the member for Fowler for his contribution. I want to make a few particular points about Griffith University and the Gold Coast, but I'll come to that later.
I just have some general comments about immigration policy as contained in this piece of legislation. Basically, what's happening here is that the Morrison government has announced a reduction in the permanent visa migration ceiling from 190,000 down to 160,000. This bit of information has been put out by the government in a number of ways. I want to particularly bell the cat and suggest that this reduction in numbers reflects one thing that is troubling, and that is that the best and brightest in the world, the people that used to line up to come to Australia, are no longer choosing Australia. They're going to Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom or other countries rather than Australia. The fumbling, bumbling minister responsible for this, Minister Dutton, has then tried to window-dress the fact that the Morrison government has seen a reduction in demand for Australia.
You might say: 'Well, what's that about? If they don't want to come here, that's no loss to Australia.' Well, it is. It is a great loss to Australia. The jobs of the future, the jobs that my children and my grandchildren will have, will come from expertise. Obviously agriculture—growing stuff and exporting two-thirds of it around the world—will always have a role in Australia. We're great farmers; we know that. We will be affected more and more by drought, and that will have impacts on our agricultural output. We are also some of the best miners in the world. We will always have a role in exporting products we dig out of the ground. We'll do that. I understand that. But the high-end jobs, the jobs that show a skilled nation, the jobs of the future, will come from expertise.
If we are unable to attract those top brains of the world, if that decrease from 190,000 to 160,000 is indicative of the fact that we are no longer attractive when it comes to the best and brightest in the world coming here, that is a problem. It actually, I would suggest, goes to the heart of the productivity that has been delivered by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments—that is, we have not seen an improvement in productivity under this government at all. That's the first one. I'm happy to put a spotlight on that. The legislation before the chamber, as part of the announcement, includes this decrease from 190,000 to 160,000.
Accompanying that has been two new regional visas. You might be misled by some of the information from the government. We heard it in question time today. They said that this is—what did they call it?—congestion busting. They said, 'We are sending people to the bush and that is congestion busting.' That is a classic ploy from the advertising man who is now in the Lodge—to actually send more people to the bush and say that, because those people are not settling in the city, that is congestion busting. The ACCC would go after them for passing off if they were in the business world. This is typical. They have a slogan and an advertising campaign but not a policy. This is the CV of the Prime Minister. Where the bloody hell is he when it comes to actually rolling out infrastructure? Where the hell is he when it comes to actually having a national vision, whether it be on droughts or on infrastructure in cities? He's missing. But he will come up with a glib line and some cheap visuals that he'll send out to people and say: 'Look, we're doing something. We appear to be doing something.'
I'm all for having more people reside in the bush. I would say that upfront. I particularly say that to the minister at the table, the member for Parkes. I do recognise that the bush has challenges associated with drought and also just the basics of mechanisation. Where you used to have 10 shearing gangs in a region, you might be flat out having one nowadays. Where you would have had two or three families on a property, now you'd be flat out having one because of mechanisation. That has challenges for the bush. I think Australia is a better nation when we have as much employment in the regions as possible. So I do recognise that side of it.
The government's aim is to change the geographic make-up of visa holders by increasing the number of people settling outside the major cities, perhaps to make up for the fact that they're not going to invest money now in shovel-ready projects like the Cross River Rail and the Coopers Plains rail crossing in my electorate. That will have extra congestion now because of Cross River Rail that the Queensland government is rolling out. They're not actually investing in infrastructure. They've got a big-ticket item in the budget, but it'll be two, three or four years before they actually start putting a shovel in the ground and a few years after that before they cut a ribbon and we get the benefits of such infrastructure.
For the purpose of these visas, regional Australia is defined as not residing in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and—this is the interesting one—the Gold Coast. As I flagged earlier, I wanted to particularly come to the Gold Coast because the only university in my electorate, Griffith University, has a campus on the Gold Coast. This will have significant implications for Griffith University. Griffith University has a campus in the electorate of Griffith, the electorate of Bonner, the electorate of Moreton, the electorate of Rankin and also on the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast will be significantly impacted by this change saying that the Gold Coast is no longer in regional Australia.
These two new types of visas, subclass 491 and subclass 494, are all about putting people into regional Australia. That's the plan. In the future, of the 160,000 places—there's been a reduction from 190,000 to 160,000—23,000 will go to regional Australia. But I don't think those opposite have actually done the hard work. Despite being in their seventh year of government, they have not done the hard work when it comes to these visas.
Let's have a look at what's happening. We've already seen that Minister Dutton is not processing people who have a right to reside in Australia, people who are living amongst us and are keen to be Australian. These are people who are keen to take the oath and affirm that commitment to Australia and become a part of that great Australian story, like the seven million who have arrived here since World War II and who call Australia home, but they are just unable to be processed. It's policy by bottleneck. Those opposite couldn't get their policies through the parliament, so Minister Dutton sneakily sacks people, cuts back on services and then has a bottleneck on desks, with people who want to become Australian citizens, people who are keen.
Every MP would see this: on Harmony Day, Australia Day or any day where you normally have citizenship ceremonies—guess what?—there have been fewer and fewer people becoming Australians. These are people who are keen to become Australian citizens since Minister Dutton has taken office as the immigration minister. But obviously Minister Dutton has to speak to those extreme right-wing nut jobs—not just the ones in his caucus room, in his party room, but that part of the electorate that they used to dog whistle to but they now pull out the dog trumpet to speak to. These are the ones that say, 'No, no, there are fewer and fewer people coming to Australia,' particularly in the last few years.
For the last 230-odd years, the No. 1 source of people coming to Australia has been the United Kingdom. But in the last couple of years, as soon as we had an increase in people coming from China and India and those countries became the No. 1 and No. 2 sources of new Australians, suddenly Minister Dutton had to recalibrate. How did he do it? By cutting the number of staff in immigration, by jamming immigration into this Home Affairs monster and by cutting back on the number of people who are being processed to become Australian citizens.
As we've seen with many of this government's migration policies, what will actually flow from this visa decision remains unclear. I do want to point out again that I'm happy for people in the bush to receive some of that labour. I do worry that this won't actually deliver it, and I want to call out the suggestion that somehow increasing the number of people in Australia is going to bust congestion. That term should not be connected in any way with these visas. If you've got more people coming and you do not build the infrastructure to support them, that is a problem. If there are fewer jobs available in the country, either because of drought or because of mechanisation, then guess what: people coming on those visas and going to country areas will then displace people, who will then move to the city, and there will be more congestion in the cities.
The government still needs to support people in regional areas. Whether it be the subclass 494, where the skilled employer sponsors the person coming on the visa, or the subclass 491, where skilled people are nominated by state or territory governments or sponsored by an eligible family member, I know it can work. There are plenty of opportunities. There are plenty of places I've seen in Queensland. Toowoomba does it well. Up near Cairns they've done it well. They bring in people, like the Hmong people up near Innisfail, to various communities. If you bring in the support, perhaps have the schools, the language and the religious establishments that provide support to people, you can then enliven an area.
I want to go to part of my shadow portfolio area, which involves looking at education and at higher ed students in particular. Let's look at what's going on in regional universities. Regional universities have struggled to increase their offerings to international students, unlike universities such as Melbourne University, where, perhaps problematically, nearly 49 per cent of the student body are international students—full-fee-paying students, if we want to call them that. The regional universities have nowhere near those numbers. I met recently with the University of Southern Queensland up in Toowoomba; they don't have anywhere near those numbers. With the nature of the visa process, I guess if someone in Brazil, India or China is shopping around for where to go to university, they don't necessarily think of Bathurst or Toowoomba or even Darwin or Rockhampton as places where they want to go to university. So these regional universities need a bit of a helping hand. They don't have the same pulling power, obviously, as a Melbourne, a Sydney or even a Brisbane.
I think you need to look at that mix. Obviously, if you've got 49 per cent of your students from overseas, with a significant chunk of that, a significant percentage, coming from one nation in particular, that could be problematic—especially if that nation is able to turn off the tap for international students with one decision. We know that even with students from democratic nations there can be issues, as we saw back in the late noughties when there was an incident down in Melbourne that had implications for the Indian community. The number of students coming from India diminished significantly overnight, just through the actions of one evil person. So, with things like this, you want to have a good mix of countries from around the world supplying your international students.
Regional universities in particular need some help here, and I don't think the government has done the consultation. Of the nearly 900,000 international students last year, only three per cent of them actually went to the bush—to regional Australia. It's our third-biggest export, with $36 billion coming into the Australian economy, and some of the great jobs of the future will involve our ability to retail education to, perhaps, our ASEAN neighbours, to Indonesia and the like. With all that money coming into Australia, we do have to get that balance right.
Labor will support this legislation, but we're concerned that the government has failed to understand the complexity of the issues that must be considered when making even minor changes to visas that affect Australia's international education system. I ask the government to have another look at what they're doing as it applies to Griffith University and the Gold Coast. I know that the mayor of Gold Coast, Tom Tate, has raised this, and I hope the education minister and the immigration minister will listen.
When we're talking about permanent visa migration, I think we should take a step back and have a look at how things have changed, particularly over the past two decades, compared to the rich history of permanent migration that we've had in this country. The government has made a big song and dance about cuts to permanent migration. It's definitely where they tried to win a few votes in a couple of areas which may not have been much in favour of migration, and there was that dog-whistle politics that we saw during the election. But it's also a distraction from what has actually happened under this government. You cannot talk about permanent visa migration without talking about the explosion in the temporary skilled or temporary work visa migration. Whilst the figure sounds like it's a drop of 30,000—from 190,000 to 160,000—in the permanent visa migration ceiling, there are over 1.4 million people currently in this country on a temporary arrangement who have work rights.
I'll speak on the government's failures in this area in a moment, but I also want to touch on the pathway that people now take to become permanent residents in this country and to become Australian citizens. It's a tough journey these days. It's a complicated journey. Gone are the days post the Second World War where people came out, whether they be ten-pound Poms or whether they be people migrating from Italy or Greece post the Second World War, and we welcomed them and said: 'We have jobs. We have regional communities. We want you to move to and be part of our community.' Fast-forward to what we have in this bill: we have a complex, complicated skilled employer sponsored regional visa where we have no real detail, no outline of the costs, no outline of the employers, of how they apply or of whether they'll prioritise big employers over little employers, no suggestion of labour market testing and no outline of the skills, the preferred occupations or the types of occupations. Will they go to the areas where they're most in need? This is the kind of chaotic approach this government now takes to visa migration.
I am one of many people in this place who's the first in my family to be born in Australia. My mum, a ten-pound Pom, came over on a boat like the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott—maybe even in the same boat. A number of people came over on boats back in those days. My father came over as a skilled permanent migrant. He was a mechanic and came over here after he had finished his apprenticeship in England. It's a common story for so many in this country. We have a proud, rich history of encouraging invited people to come here when we have skill and labour shortages in this country, not on a temporary arrangement but on a permanent arrangement, and to bring their families with them, to settle up, to integrate and to be part of our communities.
Back then, we helped people with housing. We helped them find a home. We helped them find a job. In my father's case, it was subsidised and he would have actually had to pay back the Australian government if he left before he'd done his time. So, in the past 50 to 60 years, we've seen a radical removal from that common Australian story where we encouraged people to apply to move to Australia, to bring their families and to establish themselves as permanent residents in this country. Now what we see is a lot of dog whistling about that notion, a big hoo-ha about how they're cutting numbers and no talk of addressing of the 1.4 million temporary visa workers that are here in this country. Granted, a huge chunk of those are international students. As we heard from the previous speaker, there's just under a million—about 900,000—international students across our country. Most of them aren't in regional areas.
But let's also be truthful about those international students. Many of them are on a pathway to permanent residency. Many of them see coming here as a student as the first step to settling in this country. We in this place have the privilege to meet people who've made that journey. It takes about 10 years for some of them. They might end up studying two or three degrees. They might end up then getting sponsored for a skilled visa. They might, if they're young enough, also apply for a backpacking visa—work rights to stay here—eventually, hoping to get enough points to stay in our country. They see themselves as Australians already, particularly if they've been here for 10 years and if their children have been here. But it's a very different process and it's a very different experience to the one that many others have enjoyed throughout our history.
These international students, too, are quite often exploited. It could be their first experience when they arrive in this country. They're not just here to study. Many of them, desperate to pay their study costs, are exploited by terrible employers and labour hire companies. They work in industries like cleaning and hospitality. Report after report has told this government of this worker exploitation yet they've done nothing. They set up a taskforce, but they've not yet implemented the recommendations of their own taskforce.
Our international students are not being treated well in this country by some universities, but more so by employers—people who do the wrong thing by these workers. It's not just the big high-profile cases that we have seen, like what's happening with Dominos or what's happening in our service stations; we have also seen smaller operators exploit international students who have work rights.
The government has also failed temporary workers who fall into the backpacker category. It appears their only solution to one of the labour crises that we have in horticulture is to increase backpacker numbers. Let's just remember for a moment that backpackers aren't required to work in agriculture unless they want to stay for a second year. Then they do the 88 days. This program has been so successful—I say sarcastically—that #88daysofslavery is the hashtag for this program. That is because so many people here as backpackers—working holidaymakers—experience that 88 days as slavery. This is the government's record on helping people into the regions to help with labour shortages. Some of these backpackers speak out bravely about their experience. The smart ones, the ones who have a good grasp of English, tend to find the really good employers. Unfortunately, they are literally taking jobs away from people in those regions who might work.
You will find Irish backpackers working at Parmalat, when there are local workers wanting those jobs. You will find Irish, English and other European backpackers working in Shepparton in the fruit-packing business which runs for 52 weeks of the year—a full-time job. Then you will find backpackers who come from countries where they might not be aware of our rights and obligations in this country, who are being ripped off and exploited by horrible labour hire companies, and quite often the farmer is also ripped off. In one case we heard about last week, temporary workers, working for a labour hire company, were told that the first three bins that they picked—they are on a piece rate—go back to the farmer. The farmer says: 'I don't see that money. I've paid for those bins.' The labour hire person in the middle just takes off with the money—phoenix—and comes back the next day.
These are some of the challenges we have in the regions when it comes to visas and this government and their inaction to do anything about it. I also need to mention their failure to really explore, expand and fix up the problems with the seasonal worker visa. Granted, they have bounced a few dodgy labour hire companies. But I put this challenge to the government: employers in the bush, the regional ones, have the choice between a backpacker, who they can hire, fire and turn over through labour hire, and a seasonal worker, where they have to pay award wages, find them accommodation, help fly them over here, and provide the pastoral care. Fewer and fewer of our regional employers are going for the seasonal workers through the seasonal worker program, because they see it as too expensive; there is a cheaper option. This is some of the cynicism that occurs in the bush. This is what this government has not cleaned up.
I should say it is not everyone in the bush, because I know that there is a real skills shortage in the regions. I have met with many councils, including many in my own electorate, and there are many employers desperately calling out for workers. But I highlight the challenges that we have because the bush has become a place that's not attractive to work. Because of this government's failure to crack down on exploitation, a lot of migrant workers are fearful to move to the bush. They don't think the jobs are going to be there and they don't think that they're good jobs because they hear of the exploitation that occurs in some workplaces that this government has failed to crack down on.
One of the other reasons people aren't moving to the regions, and why they end up in the cities—and it's really basic—is the lack of services. They come to Australia and they start working but there's a lack of services in the bush. There is this idea that you can just force people to live in the regions without services. There are people who grow up in the regions and then move to the cities because of the lack of services. I'm quite fortunate. In the Bendigo electorate, we have a big regional town, Bendigo. Bendigo is able to service our region—our south and our north. But in many other parts of regional Australia you have to drive beyond an hour to get support. So simply forcing people out to the regions isn't necessarily going to solve the long-term regional people drain that is occurring.
In their own visa here, the government are saying that people will stay for three years. There's no evidence that those people will stay longer than three years if you don't fix the services problem that we have in the regions. Take the township of Nhill, where Luv-a-Duck recruited a number of Karen humanitarian visa workers to come and live in the community. They loved the work. They enjoyed working for the employer, but the council and the community didn't have the services available for so many new young families. There were no maternal health services and no childcare services. So, a few years on, despite this great example of an employer working to hire recently arrived workers, a lot of the workers disappeared because there were no services. The government have not set out in this bill how they're going to have those services established in the regions to support new migrant workers. This is the real failure of the government. They put a lot of policy and a lot of ideas out there that are based on soundbites and what they think will win them votes, not actual policy that will deliver long-term change.
I am in this for the long haul, with a lot of the people in my community, and I'm desperately looking for a policy process so that, when people arrive in this country, they are encouraged to move to the regions and there are services there. We know that there are jobs there, but highlight the good jobs. Let's kick out the dodgy employers who are giving our regions a bad name. Crack down on that exploitation. Let's give people a real opportunity to develop roots so that they can stay. But, if the government think that what they are proposing, simply offering a three-year visa, is enough for people to stay, bring their families and settle down, they are wrong. We will have people doing the commute, taking a job in the regions and establishing a home, but their real roots and family will be back in the cities. That is not enough. We have to be genuine and serious about making sure that we grow the opportunities.
Whilst Labor support this bill, we have a number of questions that we've raised. I have in this contribution highlighted to the government that they really genuinely have to work with regions on this long-term solution, not just for migrants but for all Australians. There are great opportunities in the regions if we work together. People leave the regions because of a lack of services and a lack of support, regardless of their visa status.
I'm really pleased to follow the member for Bendigo, because I know that in her community she has worked incredibly hard to bring the diversity in her community into the mainstream workforce, and I've heard stories of the wonderful work she's done with local businesses and particularly some of our newer Australian migrant communities in Bendigo. I want to do three things today. I want to just very briefly outline what this bill, the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019, is about and why we reserve our final judgement until after the Senate committee has conducted its inquiry. Then I want to talk about the model that the government has used in putting this together. It's an extremely industrial model, and I want to explain what I mean by that. Then I want to talk about my community and why the approach the government is taking underestimates the needs of my community in Parramatta and the contribution that many of them could make to regional centres if those centres had the services that they need to do well.
Firstly, the bill is essentially about reducing the permanent migration ceiling from 190,000 to 160,000. They've done that already, and as part of that announcement they're announcing two new regional visas. Their purpose is to change the geographic make-up of visa holders by increasing the number of people who settle outside of major cities, in regional Australia. 'Regional' in this context means not Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast or Perth. It means not the five big economies. The two new visas are subclass 491, which is the skilled work regional provisional visa for skilled people who are nominated by a state or territory government or sponsored by an eligible family member to live and work in regional Australia; and the subclass 494 visa, the skilled employer-sponsored regional provisional visa, enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia. These two visas will account for 23,000 places out of the 160,000 permanent places available. But there are many aspects of this approach which are unclear. They are of course provisional visas; people won't receive permanent visas until they've spent three years there. But, again, there's very little information on whether there's going to be market testing, whether it's going to be big business or small business, and how it's going to work. The detail really isn't here.
It risks the same sort of failure that we've seen many times with programs which, with some sort of incentive, encourage people to move into a regional area for a short period of time, but as soon as that period is over they move back to the city. I have known people in my community where, for example, one partner is a doctor and needs to work in a regional centre for a period of time but their partner remains in Sydney, and they literally join each other on weekends. They are only there for as long as they need to be, because the services simply aren't there, their community isn't there and the opportunities for their family aren't there.
Secondly, I want to talk about the model that the government is taking here, which I call an industrial model, and I'm going to tell a very brief story that explains that. When I worked at the Australia Council many, many years ago, we had 35 grant programs. This was because the Australia Council and the government would decide what the answer was to a particular problem and then they would put out a grant program which specifically solved that problem, according to the solutions they'd found. So, if you fitted into their solution, you could apply for funding. I came to the conclusion that that was an extremely industrial model and that the whole sector would work better if the government decided what the outcome should be and gave people the opportunity to put together their own projects that would meet that outcome.
Now, this particular model is saying, 'We can solve this problem by simply having these two visas, and, as long as people fit into those, the problem will be solved.' It won't. The problem is really complex and needs a far more nuanced approach—probably a range of approaches, because each community is different. As the member for Bendigo said, there is the really big regional town of Bendigo. If you're further down the Murray, at Echuca or Rutherglen, they're great little towns. But, if you're further up, the support services simply aren't there. If you're Muslim or Hindu—in my community, we have probably 10 Hindu groups, and they're all slightly different—there is no place for you to worship; there is no place for you to assemble. There are very complex matters when you move into regional areas, so we need a far more nuanced approach.
I want to talk about my community, because my community is incredibly diverse. The majority of people in my community have parents who were both born overseas. We have a highly skilled population, but many of them are not working anywhere near the level that their skills would warrant. The banks tell me that the bank teller role is supposed to be for those straight out of high school. Well, in Parramatta, bank tellers have PhDs. In banks in Parramatta, people who couldn't get work elsewhere, who are far too qualified for that job, are occupying that entry-level job because that's the only job they can get. We have engineers who can't get their foot in the door. We have accountants that can't get their first work experience. We have an incredibly underutilised skill base in Parramatta of people who have come to Australia to build a better life and simply cannot get the kind of work they should be getting.
We also have lots and lots of farmers, which is surprising because Parramatta, of course, is not a farming community. But we have many, many farmers, from the countries of Africa, from Nepal, from Burma—farmers by the thousands actually—living in units in Parramatta. They tell me that sometimes their need to touch dirt, their need to get their hands in the soil, is almost overwhelming, and they can't do it in Parramatta. I've asked them, 'Why don't you move to northern Victoria, where there are huge hydroponics companies desperate for workers and there's lots of land?' and they say to me, 'I might stand out, and my family is here and my temple is here and my children are still learning English.' And that's before you get to really basic things like food.
I spent the last two weeks down on the Murray. I took my first break in nearly two years and spent two weeks on the Murray. I learnt to cook in Parramatta, and I get really frustrated if I can't find tamarind or fresh coriander. I got really frustrated because even the basic things that I need to cook the meals that make me comfortable just aren't there. I say sometimes that, if I lived there, I'd have to go in to Sydney regularly to shop because even basic things like that aren't there.
The ability to have your child learn as they grow the language of their grandparents, if their first language is Bahasa, Vietnamese or Dinka, and the ability to share your cultural heritage with your children in places where you are a very small group is less if you live in regional centres. Many of them tell me that they think about it but feel uncomfortable. They are not quite certain they'd be accepted and they don't know where the services are. As Australia, we miss an extraordinary opportunity when we underuse the extraordinary capacity that we have in places like Parramatta which are incredibly diverse and where people have come from all over the world. When I use the word 'Australian' in Parramatta, it means everybody. If they got their citizenship yesterday, they are Australian. We have Australians here that would welcome the opportunity to work in regional centres if they believed the services were there.
If Australians who already live here won't move to a regional centre and stay there because the services aren't there, why would people who come from overseas pick up their entire family and move there for three years if the services aren't there? They would only do that, I would suggest, if they believed they could stay for three years and then move. Again, I would suggest to you that you will see exactly what you see when we require doctors to work for three years in regional centres before they can come back and work in the city—families will be split. The families will be split because quite often with your skilled migrant visas, in particular, both parties, both the husband and the wife, are skilled. They're both skilled. With the skilled workers that came in to work at Westmead Hospital, we found, whether they were male or female, their partner was also highly skilled. That's the nature of this community and, unless both partners can work in the regional centre, one will move to the city.
They will also move, quite frankly, in many cases to the best school zone. Quite often skilled migrants come to Australia for the future of their children as much as for their own. They come here because they believe they can make a better life for their children. You will find in various groupings within the Parramatta community that they choose one school or another. There are a couple of schools in Baulkham Hills and people try to buy in that particular school zone. Westmead Public School is an incredibly good school and you will find people move into Westmead in order to get their children enrolled at that school. They move later, but they enrol their children at that school. I notice even on realestate.com and domain.com now you can search by school zone as much as anything else. That is a real indication of how much emphasis is placed on that. Again, we have some very good schools in regional Australia, but they are going to be competing with Westmead and James Ruse Agricultural High School, which are some of the best in the country. They are recognised as the best in the country. You will find families are split because one parent will go where the children will get the best education they possibly can and where the wife can work.
You are also going to get rorting or exploitation of people who feel they have no choice, people who have given up a life in their first country and moved to Australia on the understanding that they would work in regional areas for three years. Without a doubt, you will find exploitation, because we've seen it in every field where visa holders are compelled to work for a company or lose their visa rights. You will find people who are underpaid, are exploited and work too-long hours—all the things that we know happen already in our communities under these programs.
So I would suggest to the government that, if it thinks this is a possible solution, it also widen its scope and consider people like those in my community, people who are farmers, people who have skills with new crops and people who are experts in African heritage vegetables. Ask my Kenyan farmers about kale—they think we are hilarious because they have been growing it for millennia. There are new products coming in from all around the world. We have coffee grinders in Parramatta who are desperately trying to find ways to do their work here. There are lots and lots of skills that we simply aren't using in our cities and we're not finding ways for those people to build homes in some of the great regional areas we have.
I quite often talk to my communities about what they would require to pick up and move. We've seen examples of it; we've seen large Sudanese communities go to some of the meatworks in Rockhampton and be wonderful workers in those communities. We've seen it here and there. But we, as a country, can do much more to make sure that Australians of all backgrounds, with all of their skills and all the wonderful experiences and knowledge that they bring to this country, are used to the full before we find ways to bring in other people and keep them out of the workforce. That's, unfortunately, what I think this particular program will do. It will deny my people an opportunity to find permanent and wonderful lifestyles in regional Australia. I travel out there enough to know how wonderful some of those regional towns are, how extraordinary they can be, how beautiful they are, and how interesting, kind and welcoming the people are. But we've got a long way to go before we find work paths to new lives for the Australians who are here already—who came to Australia to build a life and who are currently struggling to do that.
We on the Labor side will wait until the Senate inquiry has concluded before we make a final decision. There's a lot of detail that's simply not there. There are a lot of questions to be asked and a lot of safeguards to be put in place to prevent exploitation of people who feel that they have no choice—that they can't leave and they can't stay. People are being exploited. We've seen some terrible examples in regional towns of exploitation of seasonal workers and of student backpackers. We know it takes place. We wouldn't want to see this program turned into that. There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered, and we will be asking them.
I would like to thank all members for their contributions to the debate on the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019. I would also like to recognise that this bill is the result of successful collaboration across multiple different Commonwealth agencies, and I thank those agencies for their work.
The bill makes consequential amendments to legislation administered by the Department of Social Services, the Department of Education and the Attorney-General's Department to give effect to government policy that holders of new provisional skilled regional visas, which come into effect on 16 November this year, will have access to government services consistent with skilled permanent visa holders. The new provisional skilled regional visas are set out in the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019. They are subclass 491, the skilled work regional provisional visa for skilled people who are nominated by a state or territory government or sponsored by an eligible family member to live and work in regional Australia, and subclass 494, the skilled employer sponsored regional provisional visa enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia.
These new visas are part of the government's plan for Australia's future population, to ease the pressure on the big capitals while supporting the growth of those smaller cities and regions that want more people. The plan includes reducing the annual migration ceiling from 190,000 to 160,000 places and setting aside 23,000 places for these new regional visas. The visas will support businesses in regional Australia to get the skills they need quickly.
A key feature of the new visas will be a requirement for regional migrants to live and work in a regional area for three years before being eligible for permanent residence. This is a very important feature which will encourage visa holders to remain in regional Australia, which in turn will support local communities and economies, and enhance population growth in regional parts of the nation. These changes will have a low financial impact while ensuring that provisional skilled regional visa holders are not disadvantaged compared to holders of permanent skilled visas available for people to work in metropolitan areas. Holders of these new visas will support local businesses and economies and contribute to rural and regional communities throughout Australia. It's all a part of the government's focus on improving migration to regional Australia and providing skilled migration to those regional parts of Australia where it is most needed. In summary, this bill deserves the support of all members, and I commend it to the House.
Order! The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Scullin has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment moved by the member for Scullin be agreed to.