Monday, 15 June 2020
Joint Standing Committee on Migration
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I wish to make a statement concerning the committee's inquiry into migration in regional Australia. In August 2019 the committee commenced an inquiry into migration into regional Australia to examine ways the Commonwealth government could more effectively encourage migrants to settle in regional areas to both fill known skills gaps and boost population growth outside our major cities.
The committee received 113 submissions and held 11 public hearings for the inquiry. It also conducted four site visits in regional South Australia in Murray Bridge, Mount Gambier and surroundings. In March 2020, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, its economic impact and the likely effect this would have on regional areas, the committee resolved unanimously to suspend the inquiry. The subsequent courses of events led the committee to resolve in June 2020 to conclude the inquiry. As the inquiry has been curtailed, the committee did not have the opportunity to fully interrogate the issue or draw conclusions which could form agreed recommendations. However, the committee has decided to note some of the recurrent issues raised both in submissions and evidence to the committee in a short report, which will be tabled in the coming days.
Regional Australia contributes around 30 per cent of Australia's GDP, but, with declining populations and an estimated 60,000 job vacancies when this inquiry was established, many of our smaller cities and regional areas were struggling to fill the jobs available. This represented a serious challenge for Australia's economy. If jobs cannot be filled, the survival of industries in regional Australia is threatened—a point memorably illustrated by evidence from the Australian wine industry, which is worth more than $2 billion to the economy. In the Clare Valley the wine industry has not filled all its jobs for fruit pickers over the last couple of vintages. The industry also struggles to get people to staff their cellar doors and restaurants. Without workers the industry cannot pick their harvest or market their wine. This impacts on the growth opportunities and fulfilment of exports and, over time, risks the contraction of the industry.
We heard strong evidence that skilled migrants create jobs for Australians. In Mount Gambier we visited the Metro Bakery and Cafe where the migration of two skilled pastry chefs from the Philippines to do a job in a location where no Australian was willing or qualified has resulted in those migrants training five apprentices, leading to the businesses expanding and employing 45 people, including at-risk Australians.
The committee received a range of views on the new regional visa classes, introduced in November 2019, and related issues around pathways to permanent residency. Despite the economic benefits of migration, the committee has received significant evidence that it was becoming more and more difficult to employ migrants in regional Australia. One such matter raised in evidence related to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations—ANZSCO. Many submitters and witnesses to this inquiry noted that ANZSCO is out of date and requires both an immediate review and regularly scheduled updates. At present, ANZSCO doesn't reflect the full range of skills needed to drive the Australian economy. By using it to inform the list of skilled occupations which are in shortage, businesses are left disadvantaged by being unable to access the skilled workers required to grow their businesses.
The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold, or TSMIT, is another issue that holds ongoing relevance. In short, many of those who engage with this inquiry believe that the setting of this threshold at a national level disadvantages regional areas where the cost of living and income levels can be lower than our major cities. Many submitters argued that a flexible approach that takes account of regional variations, the cost of living and income would be beneficial to employers seeking skilled workers that cannot be provided by the existing Australian population. In addition, complaints were raised about the Skilling Australians Fund levy and the extent of labour market testing.
The committee also received a range of feedback on the negotiation of Designated Area Migration Agreements, or DAMAs. While some of this feedback noted the difficulty of navigating these agreements to access concessions to the migration rules in employing skilled workers, particularly for small and medium enterprises, DAMAs were nonetheless viewed as a valuable tool. This is because they help regional areas to negotiate and access concessions that more effectively take into account specific local conditions, whether that be in relation to income, skill shortages, age limits or a range of other factors.
The committee also received feedback on the availability of settlement services and housing in regional areas of Australia. A consistent view was put that, in many regional and rural areas, there was a lack of settlement services available to assist migrants to settle and stay. All submitters agreed that availability of settlement services in regional areas was important so that both primary and secondary migrants seeking to settle in regional Australia could gain access to things such as housing, transport, employment and English language tuition.
The committee would like to thank everyone who made a submission to the inquiry, hosted the committee at site visits or appeared at the hearings. I'd like to acknowledge the committee members, including the deputy chair. The committee will inform the House of its observations through its report, whose publication is imminent.
I'd like to associate myself with the remarks made by my colleague and the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, the member for . This inquiry was progressing and producing some clear and detailed evidence on strategies to increase migration into Australia's regional areas before the disruption of COVID-19. That disruption took over all aspects of our lives, including the labour market, which has regrettably led to the unanimous decision of the committee to cease our inquiry. The volume of evidence we did receive, however, speaks to the engagement and commitment of the people of rural Australia to the urgency of their calls and to their dedication to ensuring the longevity and vibrancy of their local communities.
I want to thank everyone who engaged with the committee during the course of this inquiry. In particular, though, I want to thank the communities of Mount Gambier and Bright in South Australia and the wonderful people we met during our public hearings there before COVID-19 struck. I also want to thank the community representatives from Kalgoorlie-Boulder whose evidence was taken via teleconference in March, making the migration committee the first to conduct public hearings via teleconference in the COVID-19 social-distancing period. It was, indeed, an experience—one that went very smoothly, with minor technical glitches.
While the inquiry did not reach a point where the committee felt it was able to draw solid conclusions and make recommendations to government, this evidence nonetheless provides an excellent resource for anyone interested in migration in regional Australia. The evidence spans a wide range of migration issues, from the ability of businesses to access the skilled workers they need to build their businesses and local economies to the settlement of humanitarian migrants in regional areas, the invaluable work undertaken by volunteers to ensure that every migrant has the best settlement experience they can and the role played by all three levels of government.
The committee received evidence from many different sections of the Australian community. Submissions were made by state governments, local councils, peak bodies, volunteer organisations, unions, academics, migration agents and many others. It was heartening to see the commitment of all these groups and people to the future of regional Australia, and I'd like to encourage them to continue their advocacy on behalf of regional Australia and its residents.
As the public hearings were curtailed, committee members did not have the opportunity to fully consider much of the evidence received, some of which expressed some conflicting views. We hope there will be opportunities in the near future to further consider the effectiveness of labour market testing and the current temporary skilled migration income threshold, both issues impact in various ways on different communities, regions and workforces.
Like the member for Berowra, I'd like to note my appreciation to everyone who assisted in this inquiry. The committee heard some remarkable stories in its hearings and saw some incredible places during its site inspections. Of course, we are disappointed that COVID-19 denied us the opportunity to visit other regional areas and communities as planned. But on the basis of what we did see I think I speak on behalf of my committee colleagues in saying that the future of regional Australia is in good hands, and never has it been more apparent that we must work together to ensure and advance the social and economic viability and progress of regional Australia.
I also look forward to the presentation of the committee's report on this inquiry. I want to thank my committee colleagues for the efforts in pursuing this inquiry. I very much look forward to working with them in the future. Many thanks, of course, to the amazing support of members of our secretariat. To Pauline Cullen, James Bunce, Belynda Zolotto, Kristy Altieri and Tanya Pratt, thank you very much for the incredibly important work that you do and the assistance you have provided us.