Senate debates

Thursday, 19 October 2017



4:55 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak today on Senator Hanson's general business debate topic regarding the Australian immigration program. Can I just firstly say—as somebody who has lived my life across the diversity that is, today, contemporary Australia—that there are a few things that I really believe need to be said in this debate. The first thing that I would like to say is that Australia is one of the most culturally diverse yet socially cohesive nations on earth. We are, indeed, an international and unique model for respect, for inclusion and for integration.

Senator Hanson, you are correct to say that, per capita, Australia has a generous immigration and humanitarian program. However, under the Turnbull government, we have ensured that our migration settings and underlying visa systems are specifically designed to meet our nation's needs. Because of our migration system, today we are a nation which has welcomed people from right across the globe and our country is home to people from over 300 nationalities. Australia welcomes people to our shores from across the globe, with about 190,000 people moving to Australia every year. But that's not a figure, Senator Hanson, that's just simply plucked out of the air. It is a considered decision that is made on the basis of looking at a whole range of different factors, including economic and other factors, combined, and looking at what our needs are—what our employment needs are; what our needs are as a nation—and that's the figure that governments have got to. Governments from different parts of the political spectrum have consistently, over decades, made these decisions.

We do recognise that this is a significant number for a country with 24 million people. Over half of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. Whilst times have changed from when my parents came here, the aspiration of migrants remains the same, and that is to work hard and to build a better life for yourself and for your children. I am a product of this migration story. My father came to Australia in 1953; my mother came in 1959. And, as I said, my parents, like millions of other migrants, came here to build a better life for themselves and for the children that they were to have.

Since World War II, we have welcomed to Australia 7½ million migrants, including over 860,000 under our humanitarian program. Indeed, our postwar migration program is lauded today as the start of our very modern and diverse society. Of course, this has included people from a humanitarian-program background, and there was the decision made by the then Abbott government to add 12,000 places under our humanitarian program as a consequence of the Syrian and Iraqi conflict. We have delivered one of the largest offshore humanitarian programs. Indeed, we are not just one of the highest contributors to the permanent resettlement of refugees under the UNHCR but also balance that with community support programs that enable Australia to support genuine refugees and also to ease the burden on our taxpayers. But, of course, we cannot effectively manage Australia's migration program without first securing our borders. I doubt that the public would have supported the government had we continued to face daily boat arrivals. The coalition has taken back control of Australia's borders and restored integrity to the migration program. One of the most important reasons we are a successful migration country is that we have had an ordered migration process. When you have an ordered migration process, things are done in an appropriate manner.

Without any policy foresight, those opposite—Labor and their Greens alliance partners—tore down the successful framework of the Howard government's border-protection policies. So, Senator Hanson, as a consequence of that, we had 50,000 illegal maritime arrivals on over 800 boats, 1,200 deaths at sea—that we know of—and over 8,000 children in detention, and we were forced to open detention centres. As a consequence of Operation Sovereign Borders, we have now restored respectability to our border-protection policies. We haven't had boat arrivals for three years, we haven't had deaths at sea, we've closed 17 detention centres and we have removed children from detention.

Our humanitarian program has been a very good one, but it's also supported by good settlement services that include full access to the Australian labour market, which supports integration. It's encouraging to see that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics employment statistics, the long-term employment outlook for our humanitarian entrants is promising. Of those who arrived between January 2006 and August 2011, the percentage employed is 72 per cent. For those who have been in Australia for a longer period of time, who arrived between 1 January 2000 and 2005, the percentage employed is 82 per cent. These people are not only vital contributors to our economy but also pay taxes, which generates revenue to enable governments to provide services. I think this is something that we should all be very proud of.

Australia is known and respected internationally for its migrant heritage. This longstanding record is underpinned by Australian core, shared values of rights and responsibilities. As a nation built on migration, it is important that the Australian public have confidence in the migration process. As I have said, a well-managed migration program is crucial for Australia's future prosperity. The benefits of migration and its effect on lifting living standards must flow to all Australians, and temporary and permanent migration both bring significant benefits to Australia. Skilled migration makes Australia more internationally competitive. It has helped our nation achieve more than 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth. The Migration Council Australia estimates that migration will add $1.6 trillion to Australia's GDP and 16 per cent to workforce participation by 2050. Temporary migration is also increasingly important. More than 560,000 foreign students have helped make education our third-most-important export, worth nearly $22 billion in 2016 alone. Family migrants reunite families and retain skilled Australians onshore, enhancing Australian society.

Let's look at one of the very interesting statistics that emerged from a 2013 inquiry into migration and multiculturalism. Thirty per cent of small businesses are owned by migrants in Australia. You only have to look at the top 100 wealthiest people in this country. How many of them are migrants? They started out with a small business, and today they are amongst the most successful Australians. Some have international enterprises and virtual economic empires internationally that all started from their small business in Australia.

Any government has to retain the sovereign right to determine who comes to their country—to Australia—and it must work in the interests of all Australians. I would now like to say something on the work this government is doing in reforming the visa system to ensure that this remains the case. Whilst our visa system has served our nation well, it needs modernising. We do need a visa system that is more responsive to our economic, social and security interests. That is why the government has signalled an intent to reform our visa system and has engaged in a public consultation process to seek input into what our future visa and migration systems should look like. The public consultations on designing the new visa system concluded in September this year, and the design of the new system is underway.

To inform future changes to the visa system, the government commissioned a review by the Productivity Commission into the migration program to ensure that we have the settings right. The Productivity Commission made a number of recommendations to improve the economic contribution of migration for all Australians, including through positive growth in per-capita incomes. The Productivity Commission noted that there are, indeed, a number of important benefits from migration. For example, by increasing the proportion of people in the workforce, immigration can provide a demographic dividend to the Australian economy and reduce the impacts of population ageing. But the benefits of migration to the Australian community, including increased incomes on a per-capita basis, can be achieved especially when the migrants entering the labour force have high levels of employability. Selecting migrants with high rates of workforce engagement and employment in skilled and high-demand occupations will deliver economic outcomes.

There is also a benefit to having a diverse workforce. Australia's workforce obviously reflects our diversity, but having people with different skills and different language skills enables Australia to be a country where people may wish to invest and do business, and it also affords us the opportunity to offer ourselves up as a gateway for companies wishing to come to Australia to invest. It also affords companies the opportunity to be a gateway into the Asia-Pacific area, knowing that here in Australia they are able to find a workforce with different language skills to enable them to do business not just in Australia but in the Asia-Pacific area.

Coming back to visa reform, the coalition will now be looking at reforming our visa programs with the aim of delivering safer communities to support employers with genuine skill needs, and reduce the scope for migrants to compete with local workers and graduate jobseekers in the labour market. By doing so, we have restored Australia's migration program following six disastrous years of Labor government.

In my closing comments, I will make some observations. As Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I have responsibility for our neighbourhood, including for labour mobility. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about our new Pacific Labour Scheme, which is important not only to enable citizens from Pacific Island countries to take up low- and semi-skilled work opportunities in rural and regional Australia for up to five years but also to enable a transfer of vital capacity building in our area. What this will do is afford Australian employers access to a reliable and returning pool of workers.

I did hear what Senator Hanson had to say but the reality is, Senator Hanson, that there are job opportunities in rural and regional areas, and our farmers do require labour, particularly in the horticultural area. For this reason, there are job vacancies. Regrettably, there are people who do not wish to take up opportunities in those areas. But it's incumbent on us to ensure that Australian employers in regional and rural areas have availability, have a pool of workers that they can rely on to plan and to grow their businesses secure in the knowledge that workers will be available when needed.

The Pacific Labour Scheme will commence in July 2018 with an initial intake of up to 2,000 workers. It will focus on those sectors with projected employment growth in Australia which match a Pacific Island skill set. It will be employer sponsored and require, importantly, labour market testing to ensure that Australians have priority for local jobs. And it will contain protections to safeguard against worker exploitation. The important thing to understand is that, as part of this scheme, we will be focusing on sectors and industries where there are needs. In the accommodation and food services industry, for example, hospitality and tourism, employment levels are projected to grow by around 100,000 for the five years to May 2022. In the healthcare and social assistance industry, in aged care and in disability care, employment levels are projected to grow by around 250,000 for the five years to May 2022.

Of course, in an ageing population and with the introduction of the NDIS, there is going to be a greater need for us to fill jobs in these two vitally important sectors. Also, in the non-seasonal agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, employer demand remains high, but employment levels are projected to decrease by 2,400 workers, or 2.4 per cent, for the five years to May 2022. This scheme will be flexible, but it will be vitally important to those sectors and industries where there is a genuine shortage of Australian workers. But, more importantly, it will be employer-driven where an employer has demonstrated that they cannot fill these positions from the Australian labour market.

I will conclude my remarks on the importance of immigration in this way: Australia is a country of migrants. Migration has been a feature of our past. It is a feature of our present. And it will be a feature for the future. We have a wonderful migration legacy. There are so many people in this country who are, today, occupying positions and contributing to Australian society and who but for our successful migration program could not have made that contribution. So, Senator Hanson, I think it is important to put migration and our migration intake into context and to emphasise the importance that migration has made to Australia, to our history and to our heritage.


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