Monday, 11 September 2006
Migration Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration I present the report of the committee Negotiating the maze: review of arrangements for overseas skills recognition, upgrading and licensing and seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
That the Senate take note of the report.
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration I wish to present the report that was tabled in the House of Representatives earlier this morning and this afternoon in the Senate. The report is essentially about maximising the potential of overseas trained workers in a time of skills shortage.
Skilled migration is the subject of much comment in the Australian community. There is a concern that the level of skills of those coming into this country is equivalent to Australian standards and that lower-skilled workers are not used to undercut the wages of existing workers. People need to know that Australia’s skills recognition system is fair and well managed. Skilled migration is not, of course, the only solution to Australia’s skills shortage. Labor has a strong commitment to training local workers and improving the skill levels of our current workforce. However, we recognise that skilled migration is one method of addressing the immediate skills shortage facing Australia.
Australia needs overseas-trained workers such as doctors and engineers, electricians and plumbers. If we have an overly bureaucratic system that impedes the timely arrival of much-needed skilled labour, this does not in any way assist industry in providing economic growth for this country.
There are also a number of issues of concern that have been in the media in recent times. The obvious example is that of Dr Patel, sometimes known as ‘Dr Death’, who, as we know, practised surgery in Queensland without a proper assessment of his overseas qualifications. This and other matters were of great concern to our committee. It is for this reason that this was a very timely inquiry for the committee to undertake.
We recognise that the current picture is complex. A number of witnesses who came before the committee likened the task of navigating Australia’s skills recognition system to trying to find their way through a maze. If they started in the wrong place they might find themselves lost in a bureaucratic muddle, unable to go either forward or back.
I want to highlight four areas of particular interest to the committee where the report makes comments and recommendations. The report also makes recommendations on English language skills and support for refugees seeking overseas skills recognition, and compares Australia’s arrangements with other major immigration countries.
First, I would like to make mention of some of the findings in relation to streamlined skills recognition arrangements. We found that there are numerous bodies involved in skills recognition in Australia: DEWR is responsible for skills assessment of trade qualifications through Trades Recognition Australia, otherwise known as TRA; DEST is responsible for monitoring assessing bodies for professional occupations; and state and territory authorities are responsible for the licensing of trades and professions in Australia. The committee has not recommended at present the creation of a national body to coordinate and harmonise skills recognition and licensing arrangements in Australia. However, the committee’s recommendations, along with recent COAG initiatives, do combine to create a more streamlined framework for the future.
The committee supports COAG’s initiative for the creation of national skills assessment and registration bodies for health professionals. For the non-health professions, the committee recommends the continuation of existing arrangements but recommends improved monitoring by DEST.
As for the trades, the committee strongly supports COAG’s push for more effective mutual recognition arrangements between the states and territories, and a new offshore assessment process for trades in demand. However, the committee highlights the need for an accelerated time frame for implementation of these arrangements and recommends a tripartite review of this initiative. The committee also recommends that the Tradesmen’s Rights Regulation Act 1946 be repealed and that TRA confine its activities to the international assessment of overseas qualifications, with the states and territories to take on the domestic trades assessment role.
The report also examines how Australia’s skills recognition procedures can be improved. As the committee heard over and over from a number of witnesses in the course of the inquiry, many migrants have been frustrated by a number of things, including: a lack of information on skills recognition processes; the gap between migration assessment and employment assessment; the different licensing requirements between the states and territories; the costs of obtaining a skills assessment; and the time taken to complete assessment processes, to name just a few.
The committee was particularly concerned, for example, to hear the account of an overseas-trained physiotherapist who had sought overseas skills recognition through the relevant assessment authority. The process had taken, for her, two years, including three attempts at the written exam costing $1,100 each time. It is important to recognise that it was not just this particular candidate who was facing problems, because in one particular year only 11 out of 76 candidates passed the written examination—and we were told that, when questions from the test were put to some Australian physios, they actually admitted they could not answer the questions. The committee has responded to these concerns with a series of recommendations and I encourage senators to look at those.
Another question that faced the committee was how the process of trades recognition and licensing could be fast-tracked without detriment to the skill level of trades. The ideal situation would be for skilled migrants to arrive in Australia job ready so they could enter the workforce in their occupations without further delay and for there to be a uniform licensing system across Australia. The committee therefore supports recent COAG initiatives to establish more effective mutual recognition arrangements across the states and territories and for a new offshore skills assessment process.
The committee has serious concerns about the performance of Trades Recognition Australia, particularly given the severe trade shortages facing Australia. Criticism of TRA’s performance was a strong theme in submissions to the inquiry. Comments were made about lengthy processing times—up to six months in some cases—poor access to TRA staff during processing of assessments, closure of offices in Brisbane and Perth and restricted telephone contact hours. It was said to us in the course of the inquiry that TRA had lifted its game during the time that the committee was inquiring. The committee certainly hopes that TRA continues to improve its performance.
Another issue facing the committee was what could be done to make sure that the qualifications of overseas trained doctors were properly assessed. As we know, there are increasing workforce shortages across a number of health professions, particularly in rural and remote areas, and therefore an increasing dependence on overseas trained health workers. The Australian Medical Council’s comments to the committee about overseas trained doctors were therefore of particular concern. The AMC stated that, while Australia has a rigorous assessment process for overseas trained doctors:
... a large cohort of those people … are coming through the system and are being registered … without anybody having assessed their skills at all.
It is important to emphasise that large numbers of overseas trained doctors have been properly assessed and are equivalent to Australian doctors, and they form an important part of Australia’s health workforce. However, as we emphasise in the report, there is an urgent need for authorities to ensure that all overseas trained doctors practising in Australia go through the appropriate assessment pathways. We can never be too careful when we are talking about the health of Australians. The committee therefore recommends that the Department of Health and Ageing ensure that the COAG initiative to establish a national process for the assessment of overseas trained doctors be implemented by December 2006. The committee further recommends that there is an urgent need for the provision of support services to assist overseas trained doctors, particularly those in rural and remote areas.
To conclude, I thank those who provided the committee with submissions and gave evidence at public hearings. They assisted the work of the committee enormously. I thank the chair of the committee, Mr Don Randall MP, and all the other members of the committee—in particular, Senator Stephen Parry—for their strong interest and contribution to the inquiry. Last but not least, I very much thank the committee secretariat for their assistance—particularly Dr Kate Sullivan, who came in very late in the piece but managed to produce what I think is an outstanding report for the committee. I commend the report to the Senate.
I would like to speak to this very important report, which is a unanimous one that received support from Labor and Liberal and from me as the Democrat member on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. As the title of the report Negotiating the maze indicates, the system of skills recognition, upgrading and licensing for people coming into Australia is a bit of a mess. This report provides a valuable set of recommendations and a comprehensive amount of very useful information about ways we can improve the situation.
I think it is important to make the point at the start that, whilst it is a bit of a mess and some chronic problems have remained unresolved for some time, we should still recognise how difficult an area this is to get right and that Australia does reasonably well in our administration and regulation of the migration area in general. That might sound a bit strange coming from someone who is usually very vociferous in criticising the Migration Act, and this government and often the opposition for the problems in the Migration Act. There are some significant problems in areas outside of the skilled migration program, but we should also recognise it is an area in which it is quite difficult to balance all the different competing factors.
Having said that, that does not mean that we should just say, ‘It’s pretty hard, so near enough is good enough.’ Near enough is not good enough. It is not good enough for the people who get caught in the maze and get tripped up. It can cause immense disruption—far more than just mild inconvenience—to people’s lives when they get tripped up unnecessarily by the complexity of the Migration Act, particularly when you combine that with the very hard to follow, inconsistent and not necessarily terribly well-administered components of the skills recognition area.
The Migration Act in itself is complex enough. I encourage people to look at some of the basic statistics in this report to get a sense of that. Appendix D lists all the visa classes and subclasses. There are 137 different visa classes and subclasses in the Migration Act. It is wider than the skills area but it is across all the different visa categories that can be used to give the person a right to be in Australia, whether permanently, temporarily, with work rights, without work rights or with only limited work rights for a certain number of hours a week or for a certain period of time. I believe it is unnecessarily complex. When you add to that all of the different recognition components for different professions, which range from state based bodies to professional associations, to assess skills through a different department at federal level—through the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations or the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which has problems enough in itself—and you then bring the states into it, you can get a sense of how difficult it can be to get all the balances right.
You do not want skills recognition being used as a form of protectionism or as a closed shop mentality to keep people out of the country so that those who are already here with the requisite skills can improve their market value, but you also do not want a shoddy open door system where people without adequate skills can get through. It is hard to balance. The health area is one of those where you can almost see both happening at the same time. In our desperation to get health workers and doctors, there is a fear that we are letting some in who are not having their skills properly assessed but, at the same time, components of the medical profession—and there are examples in this report—can clearly be seen to be taking what looks like a closed shop approach.
It is always going to be hard when you try to balance those tensions. What makes it even more difficult is that in the last few years we have seen a massive increase in the number of people coming in on skilled visas. There is a lot of good information on that in this report. It gives an indication of how it was always going to be difficult to administer effectively when we have had such a massive leap in the skilled intake in the last couple of years. I recall that when our skilled intake was down below 50,000 a year the then immigration minister, Mr Ruddock, said that we would not be able to manage a dramatically increased skilled intake because of the difficulty, basically, of administering it. Yet in just a few short years we have dramatically increased the number. In the last financial year we have allocated almost 100,000 places for skilled migrants in the permanent migration program. That is the largest number ever allocated. In the space of just a few short years the number has more than doubled. On top of that, a huge number of extra temporary visas are being issued for people in a range of categories that also require skills and these are specifically focused at skilled migration. When you get a sense of just how large the number of people coming in is, you realise how difficult it is to ensure that all of them are properly and promptly assessed.
Looking at the other temporary visa categories and visas granted in 2004-05, there were nearly 50,000 business long-stay visas and an extra 6,300 medical practitioner visas, 200 or so educational visas and 25,500 social and cultural visas. In addition, there were over 100,000 working holiday-makers, some of whom were skilled, and 175,000 overseas students. Again, many of them were able to work up to 20 hours a week if they were able to get their skills recognised. As this report noted, it is not just skilled migrants who have skills. We have heard many reports about the difficulties faced by people who come in under the humanitarian stream when they are not able to make use of the skills they have. That is an area in which we need to do a lot better. Similarly, people who come in under the skilled migration program and who are family—spouses or children, even parents—also have skills but have difficulty getting them recognised. These are all people that Australia can make use of. It is in our interests as a country to do better at making use of the skills that people have and maximising the contribution that people can make.
The report notes areas in which we can do better. It also notes the importance of English language in ensuring that we make maximum use of people’s skills. There are arguments about whether we should have a slightly stronger requirement for English language proficiency in particular areas. Again, you have to look at the areas that require higher standards of English for people to be able to perform a job safely and efficiently. All of these things are balancing acts. My concern is that we have so dramatically increased the number of people we are bringing in that we are not able to manage what is a lot of finetuning to keep all the different competing balances at the right level.
In addition—and this is where we get the real problems with the culture of the immigration department, which has been widely acknowledged and spoken about in this place—when you have a culture in the immigration department that starts looking for faults and has an overblown compliance mentality, which looks for the tiniest error as an excuse to reject a visa, as opposed to looking for a way to assist people in getting a visa, those hurdles and those mazes can become twice as difficult. That is an area that we still particularly need to address.
There are many areas relating to skills recognition that are often outside the control of the person applying for a visa. If there is more recognition of that and more flexibility in the way the law is applied, we can get around those problems. We have seen some of the changes with that shift in culture in administering the law in the humanitarian and family areas following some of the damning reports that have been brought down. That culture can flow across the board. We have to realise that in the big problem areas like temporary protection visas, where we do not assist people in improving their English, we are doing things in different areas of the migration program that are counterproductive to our national interest. We need a more holistic approach. We need one that is less compliance focused and one which recognises that migration of all types brings social as well as economic benefits to Australia. We can always improve the way we do that. My time has expired and I seek leave to continue my remarks.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.