House debates

Tuesday, 25 August 2020


Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report

5:01 pm

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't know how I follow the member for Flynn. I've certainly never played cricket against Doug Walters and can't speak to his flowing craft. Regional Australia faces a number of challenges, and I speak now of the pre-COVID-19 world. Obviously, like all of Australia, indeed the globe, we face significant other challenges, but I just want to speak to the report of the inquiry into migration in regional Australia, which was chaired by my good friend the member for Berowra. I wasn't a member of that committee, but I took a fairly keen interest.

Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting

The member for Hunter might want to be nice because I'm being particularly nice to him today, only because he's taken a very pro-coal position lately, which I think is a good thing. If only he could convince some of his colleagues in the Labor Party, they might stand a chance of winning the next election.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Barker won't be distracted and the member for Hunter will refrain from interjecting.

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

From the early work of this committee, I took a keen interest. I've got to say, the member for Berowra was open to some suggestions. Indeed, before the inquiry was concluded on account of, as I understand it, the impact of COVID-19 on their efforts, the committee visited my electorate. I was really pleased to join the committee in the work they did in my electorate, including a couple of visits. I want to speak to that because it talks a bit about the challenge of attracting migrants to regional Australia. But, before I come to that challenge, could I dispel a myth. I chair the Select Committee on Regional Australia—a select committee of the House of Representatives that the Prime Minister stood up. One of the things we've been asked to consider closely is the future of regional Australia and the policy measures that could be implemented to ensure we make the most of regional Australia. Some evidence that's come to hand in that work will assist me in dealing with and dispelling a myth. There are many myths when it comes to regional Australia, including that, if you move back to regional Australia or live in regional Australia, you have lost in some way. There are other myths around inadequate services and things. But the myth I want to speak to right now is the myth that what we're seeing in Australia is migration away from regional communities.

The Regional Australia Institute commissioned a serious body of work on this topic. It assessed census data from 2011 and compared it with census data in 2016. What it confirmed was there is net migration away from capital cities in Australia. That didn't come as news to me, as someone who lives in a regional community—proudly so—but it certainly came as news to many people in Australia. Indeed, the number is 65,000. So 65,000 Australians moved from capital cities to regional communities on a net basis during that period. I don't know what the figures are today but I hasten to suggest to you that that trend is accelerating. I feel, anecdotally, it is accelerating but I can assure you, post-COVID, and what I've seen in regional communities, it certainly has its afterburners on. I think we need to be ready for, as part of this new normal, a regional Australia which is more populated, which I think is a fantastic thing.

One of the pull factors in that migration, which I should point out precedes COVID, is the availability of jobs. There are parts of my electorate, even today, notwithstanding the impact of a one-in-100 year global pandemic, that are at full employment. I received a phone call today from one of the abattoir operators. Their challenge right now in the middle of a global pandemic in my electorate is to find sufficient accommodation for workers. That's a great position to be in. It speaks to the nature of the COVID-19 challenge, the need for food security and these things. But this is a challenge for regional Australia and it's one that preceded COVID-19.

Quite frankly, we have two ways of solving this problem. We either encourage Australians to move from, what I think are, crowded and in some cases unliveable cities into regions where jobs exist, where we have low costs of living, where there are great lifestyle opportunities. Alternatively or perhaps additionally, we seek to deal with that skills, job and labour shortage by encouraging migration into regional Australia. I'm passionate about this because the fact is, if my father and mother, who both travelled as migrants to Australia separately—in my father's case by himself, in my mother's case by decision of her parents—hadn't migrated to regional Australia, I simply wouldn't have been here. I wouldn't have had the great privilege of representing my community in this place and I wouldn't have won the great lottery that it is to be an Australian citizen in the 40 or so years that I've enjoyed that privilege. This opportunity is laid out for very many Australians or soon-to-be-Australians, and I think we need to take this opportunity.

I spoke earlier about the committee spending some time in my electorate and visiting some facilities. Costa Mushrooms at Murray Bridge, which, as the name would suggest, produces mushrooms on an industrial scale. It's an amazing facility. It is very labour intensive. At this stage, a lot of their labour needs are met by international students who are working in accordance with their visas. There's a real opportunity for the Murraylands community right there as one example of a more permanent workforce more connected to that community, instead of, if you like, international students travelling up from Adelaide, undertaking that necessary employment and returning to Adelaide.

We spent time at Holla-Fresh at Tantanoola in the south-east of South Australia. If you've eaten a fresh herb from Woolworths, it has come from this facility. A shout out to the Karen and Karenni who have made Mount Gambier in the south-east their home in large numbers. They are incredibly well received in my community and—I have to tell you—the feedback we get from the proprietors at Holla-Fresh is they would love to see more of those Karen and Karenni individuals because they're so employable and are great people to be around.

But I want to speak principally about Metro Bakery and Cafe, which happens to be right next to my electorate office. The committee heard really strong evidence that skilled migrants create jobs for Australians. This is important in this debate. This isn't a choice between a foreign migrant and an Australian worker. When we visited Metro Bakery and Cafe, we saw two skilled pastry chefs from the Philippines who had filled a job that was available at that facility that no appropriately skilled Australian was willing to fill. The great news from that point on is that these same two migrants have now trained no fewer than five apprentices in that craft, which has allowed that business to expand. Not only have they trained those five apprentices, but the business now employs 45 people. It's a great story and one that I'm really pleased to speak to.

The member for Hunter will follow me and he will no doubt, as he's indicated, criticise the committee for failing to finalise its work in relation to this body of work. I can understand the decisions that have been taken by the committee, because, as we work through this global pandemic, as we deal with what will become the new normal, the challenges will, I think it is fair to say, need to be looked at afresh, particularly as it relates to migration into regional Australia and indeed migration generally. It's a little artificial to be considering these things right now when, in fact, it is unlawful to travel to this country as a foreigner on a visa or otherwise.

I'm pleased that this issue has been considered. I'm incredibly grateful that the member for Berowra brought his committee to my electorate. It was great to participate in that in that limited way. I hope that this work can be considered afresh at an appropriate time.

5:11 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

What you just heard is what is commonly referred to in this place as a filibuster. We just heard from a member who is not part of this committee—nor am I, I should say—and who has no idea about the committee's work. Nor should he, I suppose, because it didn't do much work. We don't have the chair here—and I will be very careful; I have been around a long time. I don't know why the chair is not here. I know that the deputy chair is not here for good reason—because we're living in the COVID-19 environment. But it is more than passing strange that so few of the participating members of this committee are not here to speak on this report—or, should I say, non-report. I'm here because I saw the outcome of this committee inquiry and I was livid, angry, particularly as the government said, with some fanfare, that it was so keen to shift migrants to regional Australia. This was basically in the pre-COVID context—bushfires; drought; growers can't get pickers; unemployment high; cities overfull; roadblocks in our capital cities. This is a government that says a lot and does absolutely nothing.

The government provided this reference to this committee to have a look at how we might plan—after seven years in office, I might add—to get more migrants into regional Australia, for their benefit, for the benefit of our overcrowded capital cities and for the benefit of our regional communities, so many of which are so under challenge. I am going to be careful not to be too critical of committee members because, while we guard our privilege in this place so ferociously, we know how it works with committees and we know riding instructions do come from ministers of the crown. But how this committee could have come to a halt in the way it has is just inexplicable.

I thought, well, they're going to use COVID-19 as an excuse—can't travel and obviously can't have the same level of interaction with witnesses—but I read the non-report and found that that's not the reason. I wasn't that surprised, because plenty of other committees are still meeting during this COVID crisis. In fact, the parliament is relying on technology to meet. No, the committee tells us that it was because of the 'economic effects of the public health situation potentially changing the needs of regional communities'—that the needs of regional communities are so changed since COVID-19 that we may as well call the inquiry off. It then goes on to say:

The changed economic circumstances mean that an inquiry which sought to encourage more migrants to come to and remain in regional Australia would not be as useful in the present economic environment.

Well, I thought the Prime Minister believed everything was going to go pretty much back to normal after COVID-19, if we ever get to the end, God forbid, of COVID-19. But it now seems that the committee's inquiry had to come to a halt because the world might have changed. Well, I'll tell you what won't have changed, regardless of the longevity of COVID, and that is our desperate growers, struggling to get pickers and other labour in regional New South Wales.

But there's a bigger question here. If the Prime Minister believes the world is going to be so different post COVID-19, where is his plan for what it might look like? We've been waiting seven years for an agriculture plan. The Prime Minister went to the Dubbo Bush Summit last year and announced that he was finally going to develop a plan. We're going to the bush summit again this weekend—this time in Cooma—and he'll probably say the same thing. This government likes to get at least three elections out of one announcement. We need a plan for Australian agriculture. We haven't had one for seven years. The Prime Minister said a year ago that we would have one, and we've not even seen a sign that that plan is under development. The question becomes: did we need an inquiry into the dispersion of migrants into regional Australia in the first place?

I'm indebted to the member for Barker, because he said of the Regional Australia Institute's report that it was a 'serious body of work'—they were the words of the member for Barker—and, yes, it was. I happen to have it with me. I happen to have read the report. I doubt the member for Barker has. The Regional Australia Institute was, of course, an initiative of the former Labor government so that governments could make informed decisions about the future, both economically and socially, of rural and regional Australia. So, why were we having an inquiry? It's all here, and it's all in volumes of literature, going right back to my favourite, AnnaLee Saxenian's seminal book Regional Advantage, which was about the comparison between Route 128 around MIT and what happened in Silicon Valley.

We know what is needed. We know that it's about liveability. People will go to regional Australia if they can get schooling for their kids and they can be assured that there is affordable health care, if it's a vibrant town, with nice parks, affordable housing et cetera. We know that to get that you've got to be able to provide both hard and soft infrastructure—social infrastructure and, of course, physical infrastructure, including connectivity, a la NBN, and connectivity between the regions and capital cities and between regional centres. 'Read the report,' I say to those opposite. 'It's all here.' We didn't need an inquiry. We know what needs to be done in rural and regional Australia.

In the last parliament, the Prime Minister established a select committee into regional Australia. I think it was then called regional development and decentralisation. It travelled the country. It delivered a report. It made recommendations. What do you think happened to those recommendations? Zero.

Then in this parliament the Prime Minister again established the committee and gave it almost identical terms of reference as the last committee in the last parliament. I'm sure the committee is doing its best and is doing good work, but the Prime Minister knows what needs to be done. This has become more urgent than ever before in the COVID and post-COVID periods—and hopefully we get to that period soon.

I find it extraordinary that seven years into office and after all this talk about decentralisation and building our regions we've seen this underspend in infrastructure in the regions. The member for Dobell just gave us a fine example. When compared with what the previous Labor government spent, it turns my mind. There's no comparison between what we spent in rural and regional Australia and what this government has spent over the last seven years. I cannot understand why this government is not engaging more with local government. Every council across this country—all of them, both city and country—has shovel-ready infrastructure projects. They are ready to go. These infrastructure projects will create jobs and provide economic stimulus. But there is no real engagement between this government and our local government authorities. There should be.

This is a government that loves a report, loves an inquiry, loves a committee and loves terms of reference. This government loves talking about and promising to do something about an issue but it never follows through. We see examples day after day. I can think of no greater example than this farce of an inquiry. In the end it was never an inquiry. In the end it made no recommendations. I feel sorry for the 131 people who provided a submission to the inquiry and will get no response.

5:22 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to indicate my support for the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration and to detail how crucially important a number of Australia's migration programs are to my electorate of Mallee. The economy of the north-west along the Murray River is dominated by the horticultural industry. ABARES data from 2019 indicates that the output of Mallee's top three horticultural products—almonds, table grapes and oranges—accounted for almost 100 per cent of Victoria's production of these crops. The combined gross value of these products was over $700 million. These industries are heavily reliant on seasonal workers, including working holiday makers, backpackers and Pacific Islanders working under the Seasonal Worker Program. This is particularly true for the table grapes and citrus industries. Seasonal workers provide an invaluable contribution to our local economy. They fill seasonal demand that is not met by locals. Since coming to office I have been working closely with growers and employers in my electorate, listening to feedback on Australia's migration programs and raising concerns with relevant ministers. On two occasions I have facilitated roundtables with local stakeholders and several ministers to discuss seasonal workforce issues. This has been an effective way for locals to raise their concerns about Australia's migration programs. The Seasonal Worker Program, SWP, often draws the most attention and discussion in our region. The federal government listened to the feedback coming out of my electorate and implemented the Regional Agriculture Migration Package, which included extension and expansion of the Seasonal Worker Program pilot, measures to resolve accommodation challenges related to seasonal migration, and more effective channels for communication and coordination.

More recently, in July, I met with Jan O'Connor and Nathan Falvo, two locals who operate labour contracting businesses in my electorate. As approved employers under the Seasonal Worker Program, they have intimate knowledge of the program—its strengths and its weaknesses. They have concerns that some workers coming to Australia under this program have not received adequate induction or are not ready for life in Australia. I'm pleased to say that the ministers involved, specifically Minister Cash, Minister Tudge and Minister Hawke, have taken this feedback on board and are actively engaged in improving the program for growers and employers in Mallee. I would like to thank these ministers for their continued support and readiness to receive and act on feedback.

Limits on international travel and border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have presented new challenges and concerns for industry, employers and the workers themselves. The Commonwealth government's quick action to extend new temporary visas to more than 4,000 people was welcomed in my electorate and has helped to reduce the concerns of workers who were fearful of overstaying their visa due to travel restrictions. The closure of the New South Wales and Victorian border a few weeks ago caused huge issues for growers, contractors and workers that frequently require access to both states for operation of their business. The New South Wales government initially denied border exemptions for visa-holding seasonal workers based on the supposed health risks presented by this cohort. These essential workers were deemed to be potential superspreaders of the virus, as stated by the New South Wales minister for agriculture.

The citrus industry was in the middle of its picking season when this decision was announced. I discussed this serious issue with the CEO of Citrus Australia, Nathan Hancock, who immediately saw the potential for this measure to have devastating impacts on the industry. I fought for this decision to be revoked and for common sense to prevail. Suggestions by senior officials in the New South Wales government that this move would not cause significant problems for the agriculture industry could not have been further from the truth. At the time Mr Hancock estimated that 1,200 seasonal workers along the Victoria/New South Wales border were affected by the ban and that over $2 million worth of citrus would fall to the ground as a result. To their credit, the New South Wales government opened effective channels of communication for border MPs and senators such as myself through the office of the New South Wales Cross Border Commissioner. The federal Nationals, including Damien Drum, the member for Nicholls; Bridget McKenzie, senator for Victoria; and Perin Davey, senator for New South Wales and I joined daily briefings with the Cross Border Commissioner, James McTavish, to campaign for this measure to be changed. In my view this was an incredibly discriminatory policy, and I'm glad that the New South Wales government reversed their position and made accommodations for these essential workers.

The spike in cases of COVID-19 in Melbourne has led to a need for tighter controls around the movement of people in the whole state of Victoria. So far the Andrews Labor government has met this need with stage 4 restrictions in metropolitan areas and with blanket stage 3 restrictions—

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The member for Mallee should direct her remarks to the report that is before the House.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Mallee should make sure that she is commenting on the report that is under consideration, but obviously in doing so you can make general remarks about the issues that the report's terms of reference sought to cover. I shall listen attentively to make sure you're doing that.

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. There are blanket stage 3 restrictions for all regional Victoria. However, these measures have not prevented people travelling from Melbourne to regional areas. Last week I was contacted by a local hostel owner who was worried about the working holiday makers travelling to Mildura looking for work. She has been contacted by these backpackers, who were making their way to the area on a V/Line bus. Regional Victorians are very aware of the risk to our smaller communities from travellers coming from Melbourne, and this level of unrestricted travel cannot be allowed to continue. With that said, in the upcoming harvests it will be vital for growers in Mallee to access seasonal workers, many of whom may need to travel from Melbourne and interstate. For this season, we need protocols in place to allow essential travel from COVID-19 hotspots to occur. I have written to Premier Andrews to suggest the adoption of a strategy that would allow essential workers to travel from Melbourne to regional areas. This could include a seasonal worker travel permit, reliant on a negative COVID-19 test within seven days, potentially a quarantine period, and proof of employment and accommodation. Given the breadth of Australia's agriculture and horticultural industries, I would also suggest a nationally consistent approach should be investigated by the National Cabinet. Doing so would also allow interstate travel to be fully considered.

I also welcome the national cabinet's decision to resume the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme to help with workforce shortages and believe a protocol governing travel from hotspots to regional areas could help manage any risks involved with this decision. In my view, despite rising levels of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on local unemployed Australians to meet seasonal workforce demands for agriculture is an oversimplification of the challenges facing farmers, growers and labour contractors, especially in my electorate. Locals with decades of experience in the horticulture industry have told me they have gone above and beyond to employ locals for many years.

While we might see a rise in local employment in seasonal positions, suggesting that this will be enough to meet seasonal demand, it completely misses the mark. Industry is reliant on seasonal workers sourced from Australia's migration programs, including the Working Holiday Maker program and the Seasonal Worker Program. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that these programs are operating effectively and that's why I support this study. They are adaptive to the needs of industry, and we are committed to that. I plan to continue working with growers, employers and contractors in my electorate to achieve these outcomes.

5:31 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some brief remarks on the report of the inquiry into migration in regional Australia. I would like to acknowledge all the work of the members who contributed to the report, particularly the chair, and my great friend, the deputy chair, the member for Calwell. I would also like to acknowledge, as the shadow minister did in his remarks, the contribution of the 131 individuals and organisations who submitted to the inquiry, some of whom had the opportunity to present evidence to the inquiry. The circumstances are such that much of this work has not been dealt with. I want to assure all those individuals and organisations that in Labor we take seriously the contributions they have made to this inquiry. While the report itself indicates the inquiry has been foreshortened, our interest has not been similarly shut down on the Labor side, because there are some very significant issues to be addressed in this place, particularly as we consider the potential for rethinking our migration program broadly as, hopefully, in the not too distant future, our international borders can be safely reopened.

The report does highlight the challenges of ensuring that settlement works in regional community for skilled and for humanitarian entrants. We need to focus on both of these challenges and we have an opportunity to do better in this interregnal period. It is important to acknowledge that migration to regional Australia supports local communities and also enhances the economies of those regions. This is a laudable objective, and I'm sure widely shared in this place. I particularly want to note Wagga Wagga City Council's contribution to the report in highlighting the social benefits that regional migration can bring. In its submission to the inquiry it said:

Wagga’s multi-cultural community has developed and supported highly successful events such as Fusion, which is a multicultural Street Festival and the region’s biggest outdoor live music festival.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

I'm pleased to continue my remarks on this report. I was quoting from the submission from the Wagga Wagga City Council. The quote continues:

It combines the music, food and culture of our community. In addition to Fusion, the diverse community has helped Wagga become a more progressive society through our Refugee Week, sporting clubs, Spring Jam, and Mardi Gras events.

This is one example of many humanitarian settlements that have been so successful and so important to so many regional communities, highlighted in this report and otherwise.

But it is important to recognise that these objectives have not been effectively supported by a series of decisions undertaken by this government over the past seven years. We know all about the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's record of cutting support to settlement services. The government has had seven years to deliver for regional Australia in this regard and has failed fundamentally to deliver the social support networks and services that are needed to support regional communities and to support effective settlement into those communities by migrants, both skilled and humanitarian.

Members will be aware that, eventually, the Morrison government released the Shergold review into refugee and humanitarian settlement, more than a year after it was commissioned by the Prime Minister himself—a report that we on this side of the House chased for some time. Reading the report made clear why the government sat on it for so long—because, in many respects, it's a damning indictment. It raised concerns about the coordination failure of refugee settlement services and said this needed to be remedied as a matter of urgency. It also addressed the failure in helping refugees find meaningful work. These are issues which could and should have been explored through this inquiry. I trust that there will be other forms of this House as well as decisions of executive government that will enable us to look into these questions and find, frankly, much more satisfactory answers than those which this government has provided.

The lack of support services from government for new migrants in regional areas is a matter of great concern. It has resulted in many not being provided with the services they need to successfully settle into new communities. Representatives of both state and local governments who appeared before this inquiry were keen to see the Commonwealth provide more resourcing and much more leadership in this area.

In some parts of regional Australia, housing shortages present a further barrier for successful regional migration outcomes, with new migrants often struggling to find appropriate accommodation. Again, a general perception, as evidenced in the submissions, is that when migrants arrived it was found that the Commonwealth had done little to ensure that communities had what they needed to provide for them and that, rather, this task was largely handballed to state and local governments to do the heavy lifting without adequate support or an adequate framework within which this support could be situated.

It's important to note the contribution made by Settlement Services International in respect of settlement capacity. They argued:

Regional migration policy at all levels is constrained by a poor understanding of relative settlement capacity in different regions. This undermines the establishment of effective national, state and local policy settings, as well as preventing targeted investment to overcome barriers in settlement and retention of migrants in regional communities.

This is a very important submission that, unfortunately, has not been adequately reflected by the government to date. I hope this report is a basis for further action from the minister. The report is also quite damning in respect of the Commonwealth's establishment, with great fanfare, of designated area migration agreements. I don't want to go into great length about this, but the report shows that this is not an approach that can be regarded as a silver bullet. Instead, the government should have regard to the breadth of contributions evidenced in submissions to this inquiry.

We've seen in regional communities a consistent endeavour to go above and beyond in welcoming migrants and, in particular, refugees. Labor welcomes any step to encourage resettlement in the regions. But any resettlement targets the Morrison government proposes must be regarded as meaningless in the absence of proper support services, including funding, and a framework within which those support services can effectively be situated. We on this side of the House recognise that refugees, in particular, have too often lived incredibly painful and traumatic lives. When they settle in Australia, we need to be doing everything we can to help these people get the support they need to find work and integrate into the community. I hope that submissions to this report go some way to achieving this objective.

5:48 pm

Photo of Ken O'DowdKen O'Dowd (Flynn, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to speak on regional migration. I might refine my speech to things that affect my region and my electorate. But I think what affects my electorate is reflected across regional Australia. I sit on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources, and, in the hearings of that committee, we speak to a lot of people across the nation, whether it be Darwin, Perth, South Australia, wine growing areas or citrus growing areas.

But it's not only the farming field that I'll talk about. It's to do with the shortage of doctors, allied health workers, engineers and skilled tradesmen like electricians. I wish the member for Hunter was still here. He would be very interested in that, coming from that background himself. There's a definite shortage of skilled tradesmen in regional areas, whether it be plumbers, builders and carpenters, all that type of thing.

Then you go down the semiskilled workers. There are shortages across meatworks, I know that Teys brothers came out last week and listed the different meatworks and abattoirs under their ownership. They had shortages of labour across the board in those particular meatworks. In my electorate there are packing sheds, and there's one guy at 2PH Farms at Emerald where the owner told me he was short of eight forklift drivers for the current picking season. You just can't get tractor drivers and those types of people, and consequently fruit is left lying on the ground. That is what will happen this year. This year is probably not a normal year with COVID. Some of the seasonal workers were here in Australia and they couldn't get out. There were others outside Australia who couldn't get in, and likewise with backpackers. Backpackers do supply an interesting labour force, whether it be working in country hotels or restaurants and coffee shops. They do a fantastic job too. With backpackers, I find that generally whatever money they earn they leave in the town. That's unlike the Seasonal Worker Program. I understand why: it's a form of foreign aid, actually. They work very hard but send a lot of their money home.

Australia's problem is that we have this unemployment of Australian people. There are a lot of people who say to me, 'Can't we give these jobs to Australian guys who are out of work?' Well, we can. More often than not it is offered to those people to work, but the work's in the regions and the unemployment is in the cities. Some cities, like Bundaberg and Wide Bay in Central Queensland, have an unemployment rate of 18 per cent. Yet we've got to rely on thousands of workers to come in and pick the fruit and that type of stuff. They just won't do it. The employer would like to employ Australian workers, but we just can't get them; and if they do get them, they don't last. So we've got a situation where we want to retrain, retain, and first of all, procure. In Gladstone in particular, the biggest city in my electorate, we just can't attract doctors. I don't know why. One of the reasons is that we haven't got the services that back up their skills. So they move to a bigger town like Bundaberg or Rockhampton or in fact Brisbane, where they have the backup services that they rely on to do their jobs.

Another problem we've got in the regions is the lack of transport. You must consider that some of these people who come to Australia come from a country where they don't need a car because there's that much public transport in the way of buses and trains. If you're living in the middle of London or Johannesburg you probably don't have a car, but you've got buses and trains. You don't know how to make a cup of coffee because there's always someone else there who can do it. India is a prime example of that. We do have a lot of Indian taxi drivers. Those sorts of people are prepared to drive taxis or run service stations. That's probably not uncommon in any area in Australia. But the immediate issue I've got today is that in Darwin, in just the last week or so, the territory government and the Australian government, the immigration department, had to get 170 workers from Vanuatu because the mango season has started in the Northern Territory. That will be full bore from now through to January. By that time, the Queensland mangos will be on stream, and we'll be wanting those sorts of workers. But, because of COVID, the borders are closed, so the orchard growers will have to work out with the state government and the federal government how to get these workers in. Then we'll have to house them for two weeks in isolation, before they go onto the farms. In some cases the farm will have this accommodation available, and in other cases they won't.

Today, in Emerald itself, in central Queensland, 500 workers are needed, and we're looking at whether they should go to the Northern Territory first and then come back to Queensland. I think the agriculture minister in Queensland, Mark Furner—some of you might now Mark; he was in the federal government at one stage—will have to wrestle with the problem of getting the borders open so that we can get the workers in, because if he doesn't get the workers in the fruit won't be picked. As farmers will tell you, their work is up to the picking stage, but if you can't pick the fruit then the whole crop will be lost. That's the problem we, as Australians, have got.

We also have to work through the hospital issues. As the member for Hunter said, these problems haven't just popped up because of COVID; they've been here all the time. This is what the report picks up. I hope that we can do something about it, because it's been going on for far too long. Australia is a lucky country, but we've got to support our farmers, who grow the food for our tables. These are the issues we must resolve or help them to resolve.

5:57 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start by acknowledging the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration on this inquiry. They unanimously suspended when members couldn't travel to public hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March this year. I think I was part of one of the last site visits, as part of a public hearing in Darwin with the agriculture committee, when that was called short. But it is important work, as this is, and they go hand in hand. In Darwin, we heard that if we are to lift agricultural capacity in Australia to $100 billion a year then we've got to get migration right. We also need to get water right. There's a lot that we need to get right. I understand the reasons why this committee couldn't continue its work. While the committee's report didn't have the opportunity to provide specific recommendations, it does note that it wrapped up early because the health situation had changed and that the circumstances of regional communities would be changed for some time to come. I think this is in itself an important conclusion—that the challenges that rural and regional Australia were facing before this pandemic were already catastrophic for a variety of reasons and that now, during and after COVID regional Australia is unfortunately going to suffer even more.

Without migration in the short term, our harvests are literally at risk of rotting on the ground, in terms of the mango crop, as the previous speaker alluded to. That's a real threat with the mango harvest that's going on in the NT at the moment. We've got our Pacific mates to thank, particularly those from Vanuatu, because we're going to have some of them helping us to get the crop off the trees. If we can get more, quickly, it will help us to get the rest of the crop off the trees and, hopefully, we can avert a catastrophic scenario for our farmers. Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, I don't know whether you saw today in that other chamber but I was actually expelled by the Speaker for making this simple point—that the Minister for Agriculture is talking about a pilot and the truth is, once a pilot has run its course and we get further seasonal workers onto the ground, it will be too late for most of that crop.

Apparently, we knew that the mango crop needed to be picked at this time of the year. Apparently that's a known and, unfortunately, because we had an NT election on the weekend, those opposite—not these particular members opposite, mind you, I hasten to add, but members of the executive—I would put it, weren't exactly helpful to the Labor Northern Territory government. We all knew the mango harvest was coming. We all knew there was going to be a requirement to have some sort of piloting of a situation where these workers come in from Vanuatu or Timor Leste, spend some time in quarantine and then go out to the farms to do their work. We knew that work had to be done, but I think it was more important for the minister to come up to Darwin and do a bit more of a he-said, she-said. That was particularly disappointing, and I thought he was a bigger man than that. When it comes to playing a bit of partisan politics, our farmers apparently come second or third. Anyway, we're past that now.

The Northern Territory Labor government have been re-elected for another four-year term. I think we have got a bit of a chance to get some growth in the agricultural sector. I think they're serious about it. I would like the current federal government to get a bit more serious about helping them to achieve their outcomes. This committee was told of the deep support for migration in Australia's regions and we've heard that from previous speakers on both sides. We all know that our farmers are crying out and our regions are crying out for both unskilled and skilled migrants to do some of the work that is required, particularly in my case in the Northern Territory.

The City of Darwin made one of the submissions to this committee's inquiry, as did Michael Gunner, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. The lord mayor, Kon Vatskalis, put in his submission, that Darwin, the city I represent, is one of the most diverse places in Australia, with nearly 30 per cent of people born overseas and a rich mix of 60 nationalities and 70 different ethnic backgrounds. I think that's probably understating it. I think there are probably more nationalities and more backgrounds than that. Kon wrote that in Darwin migrants fill skills shortage gaps in key industries, including mining, offshore oil and gas production, pastoralism, tourism and horticulture.

In his submission, Chief Minister Michael Gunner called on the federal government to enable population growth of 2,600 people per year over the next 10 years in order for this to be effectively achieved. He wrote that the Territory's efforts need to be supported by the Australian government, saying, 'It would be good through their migration and legislation policy that the jurisdictions of Australia that depend on the federal government to do their job could have a regional growth policy and drive it with some seriousness.'

With migration being a federal matter and with these borders being closed for some time—they will reopen at some stage—I would say to the Prime Minister and to the Minister for Agriculture that we can't just simply snap back to where we were before the crisis. That's not an option.

We are facing a trying hour as a nation and as an economy, but, as previous speakers have said, regional Australia will face a more acute crisis. And that's not just because of COVID; it's because of that structural weakness in the economy and in our migration policy, particularly in relation to the regions. It has been clear for some time now that the government's plans for migration haven't been working. If we're all honest with ourselves, that has been pretty clear. The current federal government has had seven years—seven!—to deliver for regional Australia. It has failed in those seven years. For years the government have relied on temporary migration as a solution, and now with the borders closed it highlights the fact that they've failed to invest in skills training and apprenticeships for young Australians. We all know that there are several gaps, to the extent we've seen the defunding of VET by some $3 billion, so of course that's going to have an effect.

In the time remaining, I want to refer to something that the Northern Territory government mentioned in their submission to the inquiry. They highlighted the government's decision to adopt a more expansive definition of 'regional' to mean everything but, by the looks of it, the south-east coast and the major cities. That has been fairly criticised by some who saw it as undermining what genuinely regional areas are. We saw that Darwin was all of a sudden in competition with much larger cities like the Gold Coast. All of a sudden we had semiskilled workers and skilled workers leaving Darwin to move down to the Gold Coast, which wasn't helpful for us. The Gold Coast, being close to Brisbane and having a much bigger economy, shouldn't be placed in the bag of being a regional area of Australia. (Time expired)

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Solomon for his contribution. Before I call the next speaker, I wish to clarify that my understanding is the member for Solomon was suspended for one hour under standing order 94(a) for interjecting. I call the member for Sturt.

6:07 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In noting this report, can I start by commending the work of the committee, in particular the chair, the member for Berowra, who is with us in the Chamber at the moment. It is a very important topic, and unforeseen circumstances have added some complexity to the work that they've done. In reading through it, and particularly some of the submissions—they were diverse and very interesting, but also, in many ways, what I was expecting would be the kinds of responses to a call for public submissions that the committee issued. This is a really valuable body of work and something that will be very relevant for some of the decisions that we have to consider as a parliament going forward when it comes to the new challenges we're going to face around migration, which at the moment is non-existent given our international borders are closed, apart from repatriating Australians back into the country. We have a closed border, and that is going to have an enormous economic impact on this nation's economy; it will be felt more acutely in some parts of the country than in others.

It's going to be very topical to talk about not just restoring immigration and the important economic dividend we receive from that, but also using it as an opportunity for reform. Frankly, I very much think there are opportunities for reform that are in line with the direction government policy has already been going over the last few years, in particular some of the decisions that the Morrison government has made to effectively move down the path of having differentiation in the way in which we treat migration policy in this country. I do think when you're a diverse continent and you have a big metropolis like Sydney and smaller communities in the remote parts of Australia, you cannot simply have a one-size-fits-all approach to migration. Recent data, which I grant is from before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, shows the population growth rate in this country has sat at about 1.6 per cent for many years, but in the state of Victoria it's been at 2.2 per cent. In my home state of South Australia, it's been at half the national average, at 0.8 per cent. It got up to 0.9 per cent in the most recent quarter that the ABS published. There's an enormous difference between Victoria at 2.2 per cent and South Australia at 0.8 per cent.

There's the story of Australian migration, particularly in the last decade or more, in the large metropolises like Melbourne, which in recent years has had about 100,000 people a year swelling the size of the city. As well, Sydney and the south-east corner of Queensland have been very high population growth areas from a migration point of view. It's not just the small country towns. Small cities like my home city of Adelaide have really been lagging behind. There is going to be not just the loss of the immediacy of the economic dividend of migration but also the delayed impact on the demographics of a city like Adelaide and a state like South Australia. There are the challenges of an ageing population and having a smaller proportion of taxpayers compared with the overall size of the population of the jurisdiction. It creates an enormous amount of pressure when tax is raised on a smaller proportion of the population.

I commend the purpose of the inquiry, which was to look at regional Australia and regional Australia's migration needs and workforce needs. Under the current migration policy settings, that includes the city of Adelaide. In fact, it includes basically everywhere except Melbourne, Sydney and now Brisbane. It was the Western Australian government that asked Perth to be considered regional under the regional migration scheme, and the Queensland Labor government asked the Gold Coast to be considered as regional as part of the regional migration scheme. So we now have a situation in our migration policy settings where, basically, regional Australia, from a migration point of view, is considered everywhere except Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. That invites the opportunity for us to consider why that has been the case in the past and what we're going to do into the future to reverse those trends and not have the pressures on our big cities from overcrowding. As migration is attracted to those areas and you have very high rates of growth—as I mentioned, in Melbourne, with 100,000 people a year—that puts an enormous amount of pressure on infrastructure and government services. I believe that those circumstances could start to really reduce the quality of life for the people living in those cities, because their infrastructure and their services are not keeping up with the growing population.

You have the reverse circumstance in a smaller city like Adelaide, where, because of lower population growth, we have businesses that are struggling to recruit and employ people—probably not so much in the city of Adelaide but certainly in some of the regional satellite cities. The committee went to the member for Barker's electorate. There are some very good examples in his electorate of where they are really struggling from a workforce point of view. Also, as I mentioned, there are the pressures from low population growth. The direct correlation is indisputable between very low population growth and the impact on the overall economic growth rate.

I'm a great advocate, as many of the relevant ministers and the member for Berowra and others in the Liberal Party room know, for a lot more differentiation in our migration program and for jurisdictions like South Australia and my home city of Adelaide to have smoother, cleaner and quicker pathways to attract people to our jurisdiction as we contract the overall migration program. We've reduced it from 190,000 to 160,000, which is fine, as long as a larger proportion of the 160,000 comes to the non-major metropolitan cities than under the program when it was 30,000 larger, at 190,000. We've had the Designated Area Migration Agreements, which I hold great hope for in my home state of South Australia and for other jurisdictions, because they are an opportunity to have demand-driven migration after you've first done very deep labour market testing to confirm that the roles you're trying to recruit people from overseas to are not able to be filled by Australians. That labour market testing is critical because of course our first priority is to make sure that any Australian seeking a role in our economy can preferentially get it over people coming into our economy from overseas under these DAMAs.

Once that test has been met and once we've confirmed the skill capability of the people making these applications, we absolutely must do everything we can to help Australian businesses, particularly the regional businesses that are having massive pressures and labour shortages. Being unable to recruit the labour that they need in this country is holding back the economic prosperity of all of us because these businesses are not able to undertake the expansions that they'd like to. That is obviously contracting economic activity in the communities where these businesses would like to expand and cannot. That obviously has a multiplier effect across all the other businesses within that local economy that would receive the benefit of a larger workforce with income in their pockets to spend in the local communities. They would raise their families in those communities. That would grow the size of those communities and create the scale and critical mass we want to see in these regional communities. As a nation want to grow not purely in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Our regions, frankly, are capable of growing at a much higher rate than cities like Melbourne and Sydney. It is getting to the point in those cities where it's very difficult, with their current rates of growth, to keep up with the infrastructure and service needs that they have.

I've often said before—and I think I said this in my maiden speech—when God was giving out continents not many countries got one. We are the only continent country on the planet. That makes us unique. It also underscores the fact that the cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are vitally important to us, but our country is also much more than those three cities. The opportunities for economic growth are in those three cities as well as through the rest of this country. We need a heightened emphasis on migration to where the skill shortages are and to where the businesses are that want to grow their businesses but can't because they can't attract the labour force that they need. Evidence to this inquiry very clearly showed that is happening in a lot of the regional centres and remoter parts of this country. We as a parliament can undertake some great reform to address that imbalance and to drive really strong significant economic growth, not just in regional Australia but in the whole nation.

I commend the work of the committee and thank them for what they've done. I look forward to being part of some really sensible reformist initiatives in this space going forward.

6:17 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a few comments on this Joint Standing Committee on Migration report that has been tabled. I acknowledge the work of the committee in what has been tabled today. It's an incredibly hard time for all of our committees. What do we do with all the work we did pre-COVID? The world has changed. For so many of us, whether it be in immigration policy or education policy, there's life before COVID and life after COVID. I thought that, given the situation our country is in, it was premature to table any recommendations based upon the evidence in the hearings that they had. I want to make a couple of comments on some of the inquiry outcomes that were raised. I am a regional MP and regional migration is very close to the hearts of my electorate. I believe that this country has not got the settings right. This report suggests that a lot of the stakeholders who met with the committee were saying the same thing. Particularly I want to draw attention to the Regional Australia Institute, which I have met with several times, and the evidence that they raised. There is economic gain for regional communities in having regional migration. They were saying that you help people choose the regions by putting the regions up first. We do have a problem in our country because of the nature of our migration system and because of the way it has been cobbled together over years. When people arrive they go to where their support is and where they feel that there is a community. We haven't done enough as a country for long enough to make sure that we have the resources and support to help people migrate to regional communities. What's heartbreaking is the fact that we used to do this really well as a country. You travel all over regional Australia and you meet third, fourth, fifth or sixth generation people whose ancestors moved to our country. In my part of the world, in Bendigo, the gold rush area, we are known for our Chinese, who moved over here to become part of the gold rush community. People moved from the United States to California Gully. They settled and they stayed. I think of the Jack family, who are more Australian than I will ever be. They have lived here now for six or seven generations, whereas I'm the first in my family to be born in Australia. That's that migration story. We used to do this quite well as a country. You think about Wagga Wagga, you think about Griffith, you think about all these great regional towns. Post the Second World War, throughout our entire history, we had migration policy that worked, that attracted people, not just to Australia, but to the regions. We have to unpack why it worked then and not now. It comes down to the kind of visa that they had and the support services that were around.

One of the reports that I want to raise in my comments, which relates to some of what came up in the inquiry, is the report Regional futures by Deloitte Access Economics in partnership with AMES. It focused on my town and the town of Nhill, where we've been successful in having Karen people moving to our region and calling our region their home. They identified six key areas that really helped people and were the reasons why it was a success.

First of all was employment. We had jobs. We hear time and time again from people that there are jobs in regional Australia. But it's not enough just to have a job. We also have to have accommodation for them. We know housing can be more affordable In regional Australia. But when these communities first arrive, the concept of renting a home or owning a home is not something they're used to, particularly if they've grown up in a refugee camp like our Karen people. It's about having that leadership locally, people to work with the real estate agents to match the families to decent, effective accommodation.

Leadership: having leadership in the community, having the mentors in the community—these are part of the critical six steps. Also, pathways for young people: making sure that they not only had educational opportunities, in terms of access to good schools or language program, TAFE options, vocational options if they wanted to, work options post-secondary; but that they also had activities to engage in. In my part of the world there is a very successful Karen youth organisation that has really helped to keep young people connected.

Responsive services: making sure that the health services and the employment services all have the ability to reach out and that they have got people who are trained in health services who are from that Karen community—not just people in the health community who can speak Karen, but the other way around. It is critically important. We might not be in the crisis we're in in Victoria if we had more people from multicultural communities, new and emerging communities, who had been trained in the health skills and knowledge. It's coming up and it will come up in the future. It is critical going forward.

There are the natural advantages of regional centres. We have strong job prospects. We've got a community that is committed to seeing these people succeed. We are making sure that we have the comprehensive health care. More importantly than anything, we need these people. That's where I think that, whilst I know we've got these benefits in the regions, it is one of those challenges of trying to get the people in the city to understand this way we've cobbled together our migration system. It would be great, because we've had this pause in temporary migration—that's largely what our migration has become—that we step back and say we will need people to migrate here in the future. We do have a skills shortage because we have not successfully trained people who live in our country, whether they be Australians or permanent residents, to match the skills we need. Until we do that, we are going to need some skilled migration. Let's look at family reunion. Let's look at bringing more partners here. Let's look at working with the families already here to see if they want to sponsor families to come over. It's worked in the past and it could happen in future.

When we have labour market testing and we talk about it, let's make it genuine labour market testing so that we're not bringing people into our country to do jobs that already exist. Let's actually reward, thank and embrace the people who are currently stuck here. Yes, we're not letting people into our country but we're also not letting people out; our borders are closed. There are no flights. We have a million-plus international students, temporary migrants, people who are here on various different visas, who have had them extended, who are working in some of our industries that are keeping us fed. They should be embraced by us. It's a proposal that has been put forward by the United Workers Union. Let's talk about an amnesty. These people have helped us get through the crisis, particularly farm workers. We should be looking at how we can embrace them, encourage them to stay and give them the opportunity to become permanent residents.

Let's be real about international students. I cannot believe that this government is letting more international students in when 60 per cent of the international students already here are starving. Report after report are talking about that. Rather than helping to fund our universities, we're looking at bringing more international students in. Why does this matter to this report? Because our international students go on to be our skilled workers, go on to be our permanent residents and then go on to be Australian citizens. When they get to that point, they are so excited because it's been a 10-year journey. It doesn't need to be that long.

I really look forward to the work that this committee does in the post-COVID environment. There's been a pause on migration at the moment in our country and it's an opportunity for new thinking, or for old thinking that worked. This country had a great migration program that really embraced people moving here and allowed them to bring their families. Let's do it again.

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It being approximately 6.30 pm, in accordance with standing order 192 (b), the debate is adjourned and a resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.