Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil is considering more power-sharing between federal, state and territory governments in Australia’s migration policy overhaul.
Addressing the National Press Club (NPC) on Thursday, O’Neil said decades of attempts by successive Australian governments to tackle how migration levers were driving population growth in the regions lacked cohesion and were grossly complex.
“One of the under-discussed topics in this area is about the geographic dimensions of migration, and we see, sometimes, quite fast population growth in our cities but real issues in population decline in the regions and the bush,” O’Neil said.
“This is something that exercises the government, because when you think of something like aged care, those needs are not just in the city, we need to have some distribution of workers.”
It was time to shut the door on the “era of policy neglect and laziness”, she said, unveiling a draft outline for a new migration strategy with the goal of delivering a system that prioritised integrity, fairness and inclusion.
“This document outlines a series of directions for significant reform of this system, which we will work on, consult on and refine before we release a final strategy later this year,” O’Neil said.
The minister’s new strategy comes off the heels of a review of Australia’s migration system, which was handed to the government in March and published this week.
Led by former PM&C secretary Dr Martin Parkinson and migration experts Professor Joanna Howe and John Azarias, the report offered what the minister said was an “essential” articulation of clear objectives for the systemic and policy reset required.
“One of the things that the report […] talks about is the vexed history of trying to drive population through the migration system, and to just cut it short. This is something the Australian governments have been trying to do for many, many decades and it has tended not to be successful,” O’Neil said.
On government interventions to build regional Australia, the report explored the limits of regional visa programs and the migration system more broadly. It recommended a more coordinated effort across governments to think about how migration could meet so-called “place-based objectives”, and suggested better investment in infrastructure, employment opportunities and housing for the regions would be a more effective policy lever over migration programs.
“The population of regional Australia has grown at only half the national rate, with remote areas of regional Australia experiencing population declines,” the report said.
“In coming decades, the population challenges faced by urban centres and regional Australia alike will be affected by migration flows.”
“More effective outcomes could be achieved by linking migration targets to specific regional economic and community development plans,” the report added.
Responding to a question from The Mandarin, the minister pointed to a failure between the federal, state and territory governments to properly collaborate on how migration policy could meet the skills and population needs of Australia’s regions as a mark of the dysfunctional system. While migration was not a silver bullet for the issues facing regional Australia, working better with states and territories to address the problem would go some way to improving outcomes.
“It hasn’t been a cohesive approach,” O’Neil said.
“You can’t just direct 500 migrants to go and live in a place where there aren’t services, and there aren’t religious institutions that they desire, and there aren’t schools for their children.
“Part of the purpose of the prime minister trying to lead a better discussion with the states is to try to start to think about these issues as they belong, which is as a whole,” she said.
But submissions by states and territories — who are the primary investors in regional Australia — to Parkinson’s review criticised the number of and conflicting objectives in the design of policy and visa settings for regional and state/territory driven migration.
“All states and territories want migration to be predictable so they can more effectively plan infrastructure and services, and seek more control over the flow and distribution of migrants,” the report said, recommending better-shared oversight with data-sharing and skills evaluation tools that bureaucrats at all levels of government could access.
“There could also be value in considering whether states and territories should be provided with greater flexibility to determine how to allocate permanent visas with respect to the needs of their jurisdiction.”
The minister used her NPC speech to flag the need for a major IT capability investment in the Home Affairs department, the details of which are likely to be fleshed out in next month’s federal Budget.
The reforms would include establishing a new area in the department to work with Jobs and Skills Australia to refine the way the government identified priority skills for migration streams.
“We are changing the culture and dynamic in [Home Affairs], giving more resources to this part of Home Affairs, and bringing migration back to the centre of the work we do,” O’Neil said.
“Jobs and Skills Australia will help us properly integrate the needs in our jobs market, our training and education system and our migration system for the first time.
“Our migration system should never be a substitute for properly skilling local workers, but it can be a complement. Jobs & Skills Australia can help us make sure we do this properly,” she said.
Acting home affairs secretary Stephanie Foster was among the audience for the minister’s address.
O’Neil said Australia’s current migration system did not meet contemporary Australian challenges such as an ageing population which required a health and aged care workforce that domestic labour could not meet, was broken, failing businesses and migrants themselves. While not the full solution to these pressures, migration was a critical part of addressing them, she said.
“We as a country are facing some big national challenges that migration can help us resolve,” the minister said.
“Our economy is stuck in a productivity rut and Australians are suffering because of it — migration can help us change that.
“We are the developed country most at risk of a warming climate, but also the nation with the most to gain from the transition to a net zero economy. But we need skills to be able to do it.
“We confront the most challenging geopolitical circumstances since the 1940s — our country needs to build better sovereign capabilities and we need to do it fast,” she said.
After what she described as a “decade of breathtaking neglect”, O’Neil said the need to improve the migration system to meet local workforce needs would not detract from efforts to lift the skills and capabilities of Australians.
The new approach would offer clearer paths to permanency and citizenship and also revise downward overall migration numbers. Specifically, the system overhaul would tackle what the minister called a large, poorly designed temporary migration program that was reliant on broken tools such as outdated occupation lists and ineffective labour market testing.
“The draft outline […] proposes proposes that we consider three new pathways for temporary skilled migrants to come to our country, tightly tailored to the needs of our country,” O’Neil said, adding it would change the points test, which “set the bar too low” and was potentially costing Australia tens of billions of dollars over the next 30 years.
“The first pathway is a fast, simple route for specialised, highly skilled workers we need to drive innovation in our economy, and to help us build the jobs of the future.
“The second is a mainstream temporary skilled pathway to bring in the core skills we need. For this stream, we would focus on proper, evidence-based assessments of skills needs, rather than the current outdated approaches that everyone agrees are not working. This pathway would include skilled migrants earning above an increased temporary skilled migration income threshold, to ensure our migration system remains a program for skilled migrants.
“The third stream relates to our essential industries,” she said.
O’Neil said she wanted her migration reset to put an end to allowing the system “to run itself” and instead take a more selective approach to who was permitted to come to Australia.
“It means being strategic and decisive and purposeful about who we need to help us meet the challenges of the moment and make sure that we get the best out of them,” the minister said.
“Who we invite to come and join us in our national endeavours is one of the most important questions that the Australian government asks on behalf of its people — it is a question that deserves care, love and attention.
“If ‘populate or perish’ described Australia’s challenge in the 1950s, ‘skill up or sink’ is the reality that we face in the 2020s and beyond — because today we aren’t bringing in the talent we need to confront these challenges, and we certainly are not making the most of the talent that we’ve got,” she said.
O’Neil also announced that the temporary skilled migration income threshold, or the ‘TSMIT’, will increase from $53,900 to $70,000.
O’Neil immigration and visa overhaul primes major tech migration reset