Subjects: Regional migration
One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson today repeated her call for a cut to Australia's immigration numbers. But elsewhere in Canberra there was a different message on migration.
The Regional Australia Institute wants country towns to become priority settlement areas for new migrants. They argue that such a program will make these, sometimes dying towns, especially those in need of workers, prosperous again.
The idea comes at a time when the Federal Government is considering changing the skilled visas program to bind migrants to rural areas. But is restricting the movement of new arrivals the right approach?
Australia's population is growing and metropolitan cities like Melbourne and Sydney are experiencing growing pains. Despite a housing bubble, rapid population growth and a strain on the infrastructure, people continue to flock to the country's two largest cities.
But the opposite is happening in regional Australia, rural towns are suffering a brain drain with young, educated people fleeing the sticks to pursue life in the city.
These suburban refugees take their local talent and innovation with them and then leaving behind boarded up ghost towns with local employers scrambling to find workers.
A new report by the Regional Australia Institute says migration is the key for future rural growth. The report's authors say the problem isn't that there aren't enough jobs for people in rural areas but there aren't enough local workers to fill them.
With the right incentives migrants could help provide stability to Australia's regional communities. Some communities are already experiencing the positive impacts of migration.
In Mingoola in regional New South Wales the local school has reportedly been saved from closure and African migrants are working at local farms.
Now the Government is considering changes to regional skilled visas to force migrants to spend a set period of time in rural areas - but will forcing people to live in the country deliver the outcomes for the communities?
Alan Tudge is the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. I spoke to him earlier.
Minister, thanks so much for giving us your time.
I do want to get into the issue of regional migration in a minute but of course immigration is front and centre in the news today with Pauline Hanson withdrawing her support for the Government's corporate tax cuts.
Because of her concerns about immigration those votes were crucial, so where does this leave the corporate tax cuts now?
We still want to get those corporate tax cuts through because we think they are vital for the future prosperity of the nation.
We have to be competitive internationally because capital is mobile these days, Stan, and if we have got high tax rates it may well go elsewhere. We will continue to negotiate with the crossbench and still try to get it through.
Mathias Cormann has said that it is going to be difficult now to try to win One Nation support. If immigration cuts is what she's looking for is that something that the Government would consider?
We have got our settings for the next 12 months and they are reviewed every 12 months. And what we've said is that there will be a cap of 190,000 permanent residents come into the country and that has been the case for the last few years.
We may well fall underneath that which is what we are tracking towards for this financial year to be considerably lower than that.
That wouldn't placate Pauline Hanson but from what you are saying there, can I read into that that it's something you may reconsider in negotiations if you are looking 12 months from now of reducing that number to win One Nation support?
The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have been pretty clear that our immigration settings are a right, they are largely demand driven, Stan.
And when the employment market is becoming very tight we actually do need people to come in from overseas to be able to fill the job vacancies because Australians simply aren't available in many regions to be able to fill those spots.
And we don't want to slow down the economy because we have put a brake on desperately needed immigration.
If the price of getting Pauline Hanson's support is cutting immigration you are saying, no, you don't want that support on that basis?
We have got our settings which have been made for this financial year, then the upcoming one and we will be sticking to those settings.
Okay. Let's move on to this issue of regional migration and you talked about the need for jobs.
At the moment there is a visa where people commit to working in regional areas for a set number of years or are sponsored by a regional employer. What you are looking at now, how will that differ?
We are taking a look at this, Stan, because you can, in essence, get sponsored into a region by a business as a permanent resident.
So when you step into the country you go to that region as a permanent resident but you may only stay there for a few weeks or months and then decide to quit that job and move to the city.
We would like to have a look at that to say is there any way that we can effectively bind that person to that region, at least for two or three years so they have got a chance of settling.
What do you mean by bind? Is this an enforced number of years? Is this a visa with restrictions of movement? How do you define that?
We haven't got to that yet, Stan, because we are still working through that. But when they are on a visa we can obviously put conditions upon that visa even if it is a permanent residency visa.
And what we would like to do, if somebody is sponsored into the country to go to a region to work in a business who have sponsored them there, we ideally want them to stay there for a few years and hopefully make that their home.
And if their kids start to go to school there, they get involved in the local community, then the chances are they will stay in that region and they will start to make that region flourish.
Aren't incentives though a better approach than restrictions which may be difficult to enforce?
There already are some incentives there for people to go to the regions. I mean here we are talking about, you know, can we put conditions upon the visa to stay in that particular region for at least two or three years?
Because we have heard too many times where people are sponsored into the country, they get into the country and then they soon quit that job and then go back to the cities and that is against the spirit of what the visa was there and provided for in the first place.
So just get specific on what those conditions might be. Would they be that if you do not stay for X number of years, your visa is cancelled?
People have suggested that that is what should be put in place but we haven't settled on this.
We are having discussions with various people as to how we'd do this. We have got a problem generally in many regional areas where they have now got more jobs than there are workers.
And so we are going through an exercise of thinking well how do we encourage new migrants who come to the country to want to go into those regional areas and make it their home.
And in doing so they not only fill the jobs which are there but also they take a bit of pressure off the big cities.
You deal with skilled migration. So what are the types of positions that would be available, where are the needs and what types of areas - what regional centres are you looking at?
There is a list of 673 occupations already which we have identified as having skill shortages in the regions.
And if your occupation is on that list then a business can sponsor a person into the country for that occupation if they can prove they can't get an Australian to do the job.
But even with that extensive list, what we are finding is that there are still some locations which have incredibly low unemployment.
I was in Kalgoorlie, for example, two or three weeks ago where the unemployment rate there is three per cent and the locals tell me that they have got 500 jobs which are going vacant because they simply can't get any warm body to be able to do the jobs.
So they are speaking to me about can we make it a bit easier to be able to in essence sponsor people in from overseas for those positions, so that those businesses can still grow and those regional centres can still grow and we are taking a close look at that.
How much more has to be, yes there are jobs and there may be lifestyle advantages, but we know that people who are coming to Australia are looking first to the cities.
They maybe have family connections there that may be more opportunity there. So how do you wean people away from going first to those cities and to looking at regional Australia? An area they may not be in any way familiar with?
That is a very good question, Stan, and that is what we are putting our mind to at the moment. And you are right that most people do go to the cities. In part because most of our immigration program is demand driven.
And what I mean by that is that it is either businesses or other family members who sponsor an individual into the country and for a particular location, for a particular job or indeed it is because you have got a spouse or your family member who is joining you.
And most of those jobs and most of the existing migrants who are sponsoring other people in tend to be in the capital cities.
We have already got some initiatives in place to encourage people to go into the regions but we are looking at what else we can do to encourage people to do that.
That might mean looking at the skills list and ensuring that there could be a broader set of skills at least for example that enable people to sponsor people in.
It could also mean, as I am currently doing with the Goldfields and up in Far North Queensland, a regional agreement specifically for those regions which enable those regions to be able to take in more people from overseas to fill positions.
Just finally, are there questions as well about social cohesion? You are taking people from different cultures, different backgrounds, potentially different religions.
We know that there is traditionally an inherently more conservative, cautious maybe approach- attitude in some of these regional areas. How do you deal with this question of social cohesion and create opportunities for people in those communities?
I think the best examples are actually when they are community led and we do see pockets of that around the country where you have got sometimes the local town leaders or the local council who will lead an initiative to try to get more people into the country - into their towns from overseas.
Sometimes they put their hand up actually for refugees to come there. For example in Katanning a small town in Western Australia, where I visited recently, it has got quite a large population of Burmese refugees who are there now working at the local abattoirs.
They are connected into the local church and they are very warmly welcomed by the broader community as far as I could tell.
So there are good examples of how it does work and I think by and large Australians are very warm hearted and do have open arms for people who want to come here, who want to work, who want to contribute and to want to make the country flourish. We've built on immigration and I think we can do more of it.
Minister, appreciate your time. Thank you again.
Thanks very much, Stan.