Parliamentary speeches

New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 - Second Reading

October 14, 2019

I rise to speak on the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019. I note that the Morrison government claims that the aim of this legislation, and matters already dealt with, is to change the geographic make-up of visa holders by increasing the number of people settling outside of major cities in regional Australia.

Labor supports this bill. However, we do have some serious concerns that this legislation and the matters connected to it have not all been properly thought through and that there are elements which have been poorly drafted and which could have serious, presumably unintended, consequences.

We are also seriously concerned that this once again demonstrates that this is a government of tactics and not strategy, and of marketing over substance—in the very image of its leader. We see this today on this very issue, with stories across the papers about increases in regional visas granted—and accompanying self-congratulation. But these reports don't withstand close scrutiny. As experts have noted, these figures, in significant part, reflect wider underresourcing and incompetence, leading to processing delays. These processing delays are something that we on this side are all too well aware of; they go right across the visa system and into cruel delays in the granting of citizenship.

It would also be helpful if this debate was rather more informed by evidence. We understand, on this side of the House, that the granting of the visa begins the journey to settlement and full contribution and participation. It doesn't resolve all those questions; it doesn't resolve them at all. It should be resolved—as just one example—by reviews undertaken by Peter Shergold into integration, employment and settlement outcomes for refugees and humanitarian entrants. But, of course, despite having had the report since February, the government still hasn't released its findings. These findings would be critically important for the particular challenges of ensuring that settlement works in regional communities. So I move now an amendment to the motion for the second reading of this bill:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“the House notes the Government’s failure to:

(1)   adequately fund settlement services; and

(2)   explain what extra services will be made available to support regional communities and the settlement of migrants under this scheme”.

The Morrison government has failed to produce a real plan for settlement and has failed to deliver infrastructure to meet the needs of our economy and our society. There has been no response to the very important report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities—a unanimous report—Building up & moving out. This shows six years of neglect in this third-term government.

This bill picks up on a definition of regional Australia that is: 'Not to be residing in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or the Gold Coast or Perth'. Obviously, that's a lot of Australia, and I will return to that in my comments. Obviously, this definition is not a creature of the bill but it is fundamental to its operation and to the operation of the visa categories that it relates specifically to. These are: subclass 491, skilled work regional (provisional) visa, for skilled people nominated by a state or territory government or sponsored by an eligible family member to live and work in regional Australia—as defined; and subclass 494, skilled employer sponsored regional (provisional) visas, enabling an Australian business to sponsor skilled workers to work in their business in regional Australia. Holders of these visas will be required to live in regional areas for three years; after which, they will become eligible for a permanent visa.

These visas are a new concept in Australian immigration law, as you would be well aware, Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou—a provisional permanent visa. This is an important event for this parliament to give due consideration to. I will return to that. These visas will account for 23,000 places out of the 160,000 permanent places available each year. It is important on this point to remember that the Morrison government, to much fanfare earlier this year, announced, as part of its plan for Australia's future population, a reduction in the permanent visa migration ceiling, from 190,000 to 160,000—I will return to this figure later—because this government wants Australians to believe that it's cutting immigration, but this is simply not the case. The truth is that the Morrison government has no real plan for population policy in Australia.

The government claims these new visas and requirements will encourage visa holders to remain in regional Australia which, in turn, will support local communities and enhance the economies of regional parts of the nation, which is a laudable objective and one which is shared, I think, by all of us in this place. The bill directly gives effect to the government policy that holders of provisional skilled regional visas, which will come into effect on 16 November, will have access to social security payments and other government services as if they were holders of permanent visas in line with the current arrangements applicable to permanent resident visas. The following legislation picks up on this and is amended by this bill: A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999, Disability Services Act 1986, Fair Entitlements Guarantee Act 2012, Higher Education Support Act 2003, National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013, Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 and, most significantly, Social Security Act 1991.

The key amendment that's been made here is to the definition of 'Australian resident' in section 7(2) of the Social Security Act. Proposed subparagraph 7(2)(b)(iia) would have the effect of including holders of provisional skilled regional visas in this definition, which would make them eligible for payments under the Social Security act and also for family payments, paid parental leave and farm household support. It would also make it possible that other non-permanent visa holders may in the future be so eligible. This concept—that people on a temporary visa should have entitlements such as those generally associated with permanent visa holders—is a significant one. It marks a significant departure from past practice and is worth emphasising here, especially in the context of Australia's drift away from a migration framework which is predicated on paths to permanency. This is a debate that has been too little recognised in this place, and it is my hope that this debate here on this legislation will encourage all lawmakers and citizens to reflect on what is happening in Australia's immigration story more broadly.

The bill would also amend the Social Security Act to provide that provisional skilled regional visa holders be subject to waiting periods in qualifying for eligibility for certain benefits, such as Newstart and carers allowance, on the same terms as permanent visa holders—that is, on the day the provisional visa is granted, not a subsequent permanent visa date.

The government has touted that these new visas and, indeed, the population package will bust congestion, but the government has failed to outline in any great detail how it intends to provide support to the 23,000 visa holders who would be living in regional Australia—not a shred of detail. Given this government's track record and the Minister for Home Affairs's general mismanagement of his department, we wonder how and if these visas will ever be implemented properly.

The Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure has been out trumpeting his new population centre located in the Treasury, and then there was a meeting with all the state treasurers with lots of talk about bottom-up approaches and data sharing, buzzwords all designed to give the impression that the government actually has a plan. But the government still needs to outline what social support networks and services will be made available to support regional communities with an increase in migrant populations and to support long-term and effective settlement and contribution, aspirations which again are shared across this place. But, on this side, we recognise and say directly that you've got to have a decent system of support in places where you want to settle new migrants, even skilled migrants. This is especially important in the present context, because we know all about the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's record of cutting support to settlement services.

Of course, nothing in this bill addresses those issues which face regional universities. In 2018, there were more than 869,000 international student enrolments in Australia, of which only three per cent were in regional Australia. The international education market contributed $36 billion to the Australian economy in 2018, but Australia's regional universities have been struggling to increase their offerings to international students. The Morrison government has said very, very little about this big economic challenge, neglecting this very significant economic opportunity. So there are very legitimate concerns about the impact of all of this on the international education sector.

I draw members' attention to the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee on this bill. Again, while Labor supports the bill, a number of concerns were highlighted here and should be addressed, including the threat to Australia's international education reputation—specifically, that the government seems to fail to understand the complexity of the issues that must be considered when we make even minor changes to visas that affect Australia's international education system. These issues are sufficiently complex such that there can be no quick fix, but the reputation and high standards of the Australian higher education market are a matter of great importance and should be treated as such by this government.

We also note that the committee has drawn our attention to an overreliance through this scheme on delegated legislation, which raises not insignificant democratic concerns. There are issues which go back to the importation of the definition of 'regional Australia' into this bill. No plans were put forward to maintain and develop a regional workforce, and questions go to the transfer of existing exemptions for Australian universities. I mentioned earlier that Australia's regional universities have been struggling to increase their offerings to the important international student market, and the government's own consultation paper Growing international education in regional Australia has acknowledged the perception that regional institutions have limited offerings and other related matters. We have been paying very careful attention to this and are conscious that they be supported to develop this offer whilst not putting the reputation of standards of international education here at risk.

Since the coalition government's funding freeze ended the demand-driven system, Australian universities have of course been forced to turn to the international market to balance their budgets. It's been reported that RMIT University generates 40 per cent of its total revenue from international student fees, and that some of the elite, research intensive Group of Eight universities generate about 35 per cent of their total revenue by the same means. However, some sector experts believe these figures to be understated. With China, India and Nepal making up close to 50 per cent of the market, any change in geopolitical circumstances could place Australian universities in dire straits.

In their dissenting report to the Senate inquiry, Labor senators rightly expressed their concern that there had been no advice from the Department of Home Affairs about resourcing compliance of these two new visa subclasses. This is raised in the context of the growth of student numbers from the subcontinent and media reports that the department has raised the student visa risk status of India, Nepal and Pakistan from medium to high on the basis of a number of concerns. Labor senators have asserted, properly, that there is a risk if international students' decisions on where to study are driven by visa issues rather than education choices. This is an important point.

Australia saw the consequence of these imbalanced incentives previously in 2009, which prompted the focus on quality assurance. As I raised previously, Labor is concerned more broadly by an over reliance on delegated authority. Substantive provisions should generally be enacted by primary and not delegated legislation, but this bill once again highlights the government's reliance on delegated legislation. We note that neither the establishment of the visas themselves nor the locations to which they will apply are part of the legislation but may be subject to change by the minister.

Concerns have also been raised by members of the higher education community about the inconsistency in how the minister has defined the 'designated regional area'. I believe that there are concerns that this change may not be driven by the needs of students or with the aim of improving the quality of education in our regional areas, but rather by the prospect of directing funding for political reasons. These concerns have been raised by Griffith University and by the Australian Technology Network of Universities. I quote from them:

The Australian Technology Network notes that the regional/rural classification creates some inequalities in relation to Perth being excluded from the definition, while areas such as Canberra, Adelaide and Wollongong would be included. Perth is considered one of the most isolated cities in Australia and as a consequence would be at considerable disadvantage in relation to attracting international students to the state. A reconsideration of this classification would assist in resolving this matter.

Griffith University stated:

Three state capital cities, Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart as well as the national capital, Canberra, are considered regional for the purposes of Skilled Regional Visas that include International Students. It is particularly difficult to comprehend why Adelaide, with a population of 1.3 million, more than twice that of the Gold Coast's 663,321 according to 2018 data, is considered Regional over the Gold Coast.

The seemingly ad hoc manner in which the definition has been applied is of concern and is something that should be carefully looked at, particularly in the context of past actions by this government which have seen university campuses in suburban areas defined as 'regional' and eligible for additional Commonwealth funding. One example of this is Federation University Australia's Berwick Campus, just 40 kilometres south-east of Melbourne city centre, which received over $40 million in a program that was designed to support more students at five regionally focused universities over four years.

The NTEU has expressed their concerns about issues of rorting and perhaps worker exploitation if left unchecked. The NTEU submission stated:

The two provisional skilled visas referred to in this Bill—that is, the Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) (Subclass 491) visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) (Subclass 494) are specifically created for regional and rural areas, where evidence has been shown the risk of exploitation to be particularly high. This is of significant concern because, as noted, the current provisions to deal with exploitation of temporary workers have proven to be ineffective.

This doesn't go to the terms of the bill but to the context within which this bill is being debated and the circumstances of these regional communities. These are matters the government should have paid closer attention to before now and should be addressing now.

The Senate inquiry also had concerns raised by the ATN and Rural Councils Victoria that the government has not presented a plan or long-term strategy on how to encourage visa holders to remain in regional communities after a required three-year waiting period is over. This is a fundamental point. Rural Councils Victoria noted specifically that:

… changes made at the Federal level to the migrant intake need to work in tandem with State and Local Government programs and initiatives that provide essential support services to new migrants and their communities.

It is encouraging that dialogue has begun across Australian governments on this point. But, as has too often been the case, this is simply too late for too many people and too many communities.

Sufficient funding, from state and federal governments, needs to be provided for housing support, education and training services and community assistance programs. Without these supports, and without sufficient job opportunities, long-term retention of these workers in regional areas is unlikely—a point that has been made also by Peter McDonald, the government's own population adviser. I say again: while Labor is very supportive of the policy aims and design behind these bills, we are concerned about some of these issues, and, unless the government address those concerns—particularly those raised by the education sector—they should be prepared for unintended consequences. These are matters which should be addressed in advance, not after the fact.

I raise, also, some concerns in relation to the existing exemptions for Australian universities. My colleagues' Senate minority report to the Senate bill inquiry said:

Labor Senators note the recommendation in the Joint University Submission which calls for the existing exemptions that apply to the Employer Nomination Scheme (Subclass 186) and the expansion to the existing exemptions in relation to Age, Skills Assessment and Work experience requirements for Australian University sponsors for professional and managerial positions be made available to the two new visa sub classes.

Labor also notes the advice given by Universities Australia to the Senate committee, which advised caution in finalising the settings to ensure that the conditions associated with the new skilled regional visas are not so restrictive as to act as a deterrent to potential visa applicants. This is yet another concern which should have been addressed earlier.

I want to also speak about the Morrison government's recent foray into population policy. Just a few weeks ago, the population minister launched a new population centre—within Treasury, oddly enough. Labor of course welcomes a mature debate about population, one that is informed by evidence. Understanding how migrants and international students decide where they settle in Australia and what the government can do to incentivise them into regional areas is an important and worthy aim. Having a population strategy—a proper population strategy—is a must for any government today. Over the next 30 years, our nation's population is projected to increase by 50 per cent, and most of this growth will be in our large cities. This reflects economic growth and opportunity and poses policymakers with a big challenge and one that Labor has been grappling with: how do we continue to realise the benefits of agglomeration and maintain livability? This is critical to boosting productivity and also people's wellbeing.

In Melbourne and Sydney, we know that populations will grow from around five million today to eight million by mid-century. We also know that, in the past, the vast majority of migrants settling in Australia have chosen to stay in our big cities. In those cities, we know, the congestion is getting worse. Commuters in Sydney are experiencing a massive 71-minute average journey to and from work each day, and Melburnians spend an average of 65 minutes on their commute. We know that Infrastructure Australia has predicted that road congestion costs in our major cities will more than double by 2031. We know that the Reserve Bank governor has called for infrastructure investment to be brought forward seven times since the election. We know that, despite this, the Morrison government failed to spend a cent from the Urban Congestion Fund in all of 2018-19, even though money was forecast to have been spent in this year's budget. All we get from this government are calls for the states and territories to do more. The truth is that this government is using population and migration to cover up for its failures to invest in productive infrastructure. They are trying to hide their failure to bust congestion in our cities by blaming migration.

Just last week I was at the FECCA conference, and I heard about a young girl of South Sudanese background who explained that she always stood up on the bus to school because she's anxious that she and, as it was reported, people like her are blamed for crowded public transport and congested roads. How utterly awful! Government members should think about this in terms of how they speak about congestion in our cities and what causes it. People like this girl aren't to be blamed for going to school or going to work, so they shouldn't feel blamed. Instead, we need to see from this government some responsibility taken for failures to plan and deliver infrastructure that is fit for purpose.

This bill seeks to facilitate measures that are all about the distribution of population. But tinkering around the edges of our visa system won't make a huge difference, especially without a wider plan for resettlement and development to ensure that these changes are lasting. It won't count for much if we fail to increase the attractiveness of our regional areas through greater supports and more economic opportunities. We see no mention from the government of the great challenges of socio-economic inequality posed by some of these questions here, which are huge issues at the moment. I encourage members to look at some of the reporting in the Nine newspapers last week, which really demonstrated the extent of geographic inequality in Australia. There is also no mention of the skills and workforce challenges posed by these questions, or of the health and wellbeing challenges, or of the environment and climate change challenges, and no mention of the failures to adequately invest in infrastructure—created by the government's ineptitude. The reality is, despite its rhetoric on population, the government's policy response has been found wanting time and time again.

Returning to an earlier point, the Morrison government claims it is cutting migration. The government clearly likes the political optics of this. It says it has cut permanent migration from 190,000 to 160,000 places. That much is true, but it doesn't reveal the full story. It doesn't show that the temporary migration program, which has been around the order of 700,000 for the last decade or so, is driven by the demand for international student places, the number of working-holiday visa holders and temporary skilled migrants, amongst others.

For its COAG processes the government hand-picked an expert, Peter McDonald from the University of Melbourne, who did not offer support for this approach. A study by his school, the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said of the government's plan to introduce new visas to create incentives for new migrants to settle outside of the major capitals:

This is flawed logic … If labour demand remains very strong, at least in the large cities, firms unable to fill that demand from international migration will draw instead upon the rest of Australia …

This is a matter that government members should think seriously about. It doesn't go to the worthy aspiration that underpins the measures referred to in this bill but to some of the underlying facts, which have not been addressed.

Like most things with this government, the rhetoric simply doesn't meet the reality. The Morrison government has talked a big game when it comes to development in our regions. When an election campaign is on, with media releases to drop and votes to win, we hear about big plans and grand ambition. But when the hard reality of governing comes along, what do we get? Not very much. Proposals to relocate government departments to regional towns don't cut it.

Labor understands that both improving regional services and investing in community infrastructure will enable regional cities and towns to grow, and attract and retain the workers needed to power regional economic development that is sustainable. An effective decentralisation strategy requires investment in communities and their infrastructure, including settlement services. While regional cities are developing rapidly as economic and service hubs, like major capitals, they are facing the need for supporting investment in enabling infrastructure. Labor has been a great proponent of creating an office for regional development to provide high-level advice and assessment of regional plans. That's why, at the last election, we committed to a comprehensive $795 million plan for regional development, to ensure the strength of our regions over time. This government has failed on regional development, and that goes to the heart of meeting the aspirations that are the subject of this bill.

Labor will be supporting this bill. We support it because of its aims, not because of the great change, we believe, it will of itself effect in terms of regional settlement. But something is better than nothing. We do think that this bill could be greatly improved if it were connected to a plan to invest in settlement services for our regional areas. We think, in combination with the measures referred to in this bill, that that could better attract and retain migrants in our regional areas, to enable them to build great lives in those communities and to make a great contribution to the future of those regional communities.