The regional visa debate

For an update to this article and annouced cuts to permanent migration plaices, please go here.

In a speech on congestion, population, and infrastructure planning, the Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, Hon Alan Tudge MP, roused fellow politicians and the media this week on Australia’s immigration policies, in particular congestion in highly populated areas and a push to require new migrants to live in regional areas for a time in the hope they will settle there on a long-term basis. The New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, then weighed in, calling for migration to the state to be halved, citing infrastructure issues.

Australia’s thee biggest population centres (Sydney, Melbourne and South East Queensland) have been growing at a substantial rate over the past few years while lesser populated states and regions find it difficult to attract suitable workers. This is indicative of the varied economies within Australia, demonstrated by the unemployment figures by States and Territory. There are most likely greater disparities between urban and regional areas. But one wonders, therefore, whether the relevant ministers can use the legislative levers within the current migration framework to divert international migrants to regions that require them.

For starters, it might be in their best interest to take heed of a recent report from the Northern Territory Government, which found that if migrants (not specifically excluding interstate migrants) have lived in the Northern Territory for five years, the likelihood of them leaving is substantially reduced. Currently, there are no visas that incorporate such a timeframe as a visa condition.

The only visas that come close, and as previously reported, is the Subclass 489  – Skilled Regional (Provisional) visa and their mandatory visa conditions 8539 and 8549, which require these visa holders to live, study and work in a regional area. Failure to meet these conditions could see their visa cancelled, however, more importantly, because 489 visas are provisional visas, not complying with these conditions may prevent the visa holder from meeting the requirements for a permanent Subclass 887 - Skilled Regional visa.

Reviewing the major categories of both temporary and permanent visas, there appears to not be many visas that could meet policy requirements. It could not be reasonably expected any temporary visas holders, be that visitor, student, or working holiday makers among others, to be excluded from living in a major city. Furthermore, student visas, which have become a significant population driver is tied to the education institution where they study, and one would like to think students have chosen where they study based on the education outcomes they want to achieve within their budget regardless of where the institution is located. Unless top-tier institutions offering a full-service curriculum are built or relocated to regional areas, enticing students to regional areas is unlikely. One could, however, foresee incentivising students wishing to remain in Australia permanently to study in regional areas by increasing the number of points awarded for a General Skilled Migration (GSM). Currently 5 points are awarded for applicants who have studied in a regional or low population metropolitan growth area for at least 2 academic years.

For the 190,000 permanent visas to be granted this financial year, certainly, family visas would be a difficult proposition because it would run opposite the purpose of these visas, namely family reunion. Employer sponsored visas, as with student visas, are tied to a particular location, namely where they are employed. This leaves the humanitarian, business skills, and GSM visas. Business skilled visas are relatively small in number and may require provisional business visa holders to operate a business and therefore live in an urban area.

The remaining and glaringly obvious target is the suite of GSM visas, which consist of a total of 72,840 places and where applicants can be granted a permanent Subclass 189 – Skilled – Independent or Subclass 190 – Skilled – Nominated visa without having entered Australia previously. Given this, visa holders may not have laid any foundations in a major population centre. It is these visas, both provisional and permanent, which may see future reform to achieve policy outcomes.