Parliamentary speeches

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

October 14, 2019

Labor will be supporting the passage of this bill. I am disappointed, of course, that the government has not had regard to the second reading amendment nor to the contributions of Labor members in the course of this debate, which has been an important debate on an important issue. What this bill will do is facilitate some significant improvements to the establishment of a rebalancing of settlement and regional development. But the bill, as it stands, does not do nearly enough of the work that is required to be done. In particular, I asked the minister to consider the passionate contributions that have been made on this side of the House, drawing his attention and the attention of his government to the need to think more clearly about what is happening around these provisional skilled visas and settlement support.

We know there are a range of reasons why a government strategy is required to direct skilled migration towards the regions. That's obvious, and I would have thought a government of a party of the market would recognise that. But what we're not seeing, in an appropriate and worthy endeavour to direct skilled migrants towards the regions, and to encourage them to settle there beyond the three years, is recognition of what appropriate settlement services are to be provided. It is deeply concerning to me that the government, having at the end of last year commissioned Peter Shergold—a very eminent public servant, a very eminent Australian—to look at the issues going to settlement services for humanitarian migrants, has not released this report, a report which was delivered to government in February. I know the minister at the table has, I believe, committed to releasing the report before the end of the year, but this is a report which could have and should have guided debate on the issues that are the subject of this legislation. We know that migrants of all types face particular challenges when settling in more regional communities rather than in established centres.

Something like this consideration of settlement services is appropriate in this context for a number of reasons. The first is recognising that under this government we have seen cut after cut after cut to vital settlement services. I had the great privilege of spending a couple of days at the FECCA conference in Hobart last week. Among all the themes that were consistent across a conference that was engaging and inspiring was a concern that our very proud and bipartisan record of being a leading country when it comes to resettlement and settlement is under threat because of a series of cuts and, I think, also a failure to listen to the voices that speak for migrant Australians. We saw that in the contributions of submitters to the Shergold report in the media recently. These are comments which are very much applicable to the debate that's before us here in terms of better understanding what supports are required to enable people to settle effectively in the first instance, to make sure that they can make effective contributions and to make sure that their families, where appropriate, can also be integrated into communities, be economically productive and feel part of the community.

I hope the minister has the opportunity to consider the contribution of the member for Bendigo, who touched upon some of the challenges that have more recently been experienced in the community of Nhill in my state of Victoria, where we have seen a great record of private sector engagement with humanitarian migrants around the viability of a very important business but we have seen, as the story has gone on, some significant challenges going to the provision of appropriate settlement services. Of course, this is something that all of us who want to see consistent policies around regional development would like to see. So I urge the minister, in relation to this bill but also more broadly in relation to his responsibilities and his role in working with other ministers and other departments within this government, to think hard about how we can wrap around a proper, responsive and adequately funded series of settlement arrangements to go with these new visa subcategories.

In my contribution in the second reading debate, I touched, as did a number of my colleagues, on the issues raised by this legislation that are particular to higher education. In Labor, we accept that these are complex questions and there isn't a quick fix, but we are concerned in this area about unintended consequences. Again I urge the minister to consider the submissions made by Griffith University, by Universities Australia and by the Australian Technology Network of Universities, which raised some very significant issues which I don't think should be the subject of particular partisan contest in this place but are fundamentally important to the operation of one of Australia's most significant industries—in particular, one of Australia's most significant export industries. I imagine that in coming days we'll be talking quite a lot about the potential for higher education exports in the context of other legislation which is going to come before the parliament. Let us make sure that with these arrangements—worthy as they are in making sure that the consequences of the establishment of the provisional skilled visa scheme mean that people will have appropriate access to appropriate Commonwealth entitlements on the basis of being permanent migrants—we don't miss out on working through these challenging and critical issues that go to higher education.

The introduction of these two new visas is obviously not a standalone policy for the government, as the government itself has made clear; it's part of a population plan. But this plan, to be meaningful, has to have more substance to it to go with the soaring rhetoric, particularly that of the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, because there are simply too many gaps and too many failures to properly consult and go through the processes one would expect when grappling with challenges as profound as the nature of our population growth and the distribution of that growth. In Labor we take these challenges very seriously: in particular, getting the balance right between ensuring that we continue to reap the great benefits of agglomeration in the knowledge-intensive economies of inner Melbourne and inner Sydney—and inner Canberra too, I'm sure the member for Fenner would like me to say—and making sure that we prevent these economies from collapsing on themselves and that we maintain livability and do everything we can to ensure that we continue to have other clusters of productive economic activity.

This is a big challenge for governments. Governments have been good at talking about this challenge for a long time, but have generally underdelivered. My fear is that government will continue to underdeliver if the challenge isn't grappled with more seriously on the basis of more evidence. In this regard, the critical report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities—chaired by the member for Bennelong in the last parliament—Building Up & Moving Out provided a really important overview of the challenges of Australian settlement, the linkages between communities and the possible transformation of communities. The issues it raised are absolutely central to the problem that this bill is part of the intended solution to. Yet two years after this report was handed to the minister, he is yet to respond. I'd like to say that this is an isolated example, but it is not. We have a government which, in too many areas, appears allergic to evidence in—and here we need the evidence.

I say again that we are sympathetic to the policy aims that are the subject of this piece of legislation. They are important aims. They are worthy aims, whether it's about revitalising regional communities and seeking to develop and sustain those alternative centres of productive economic activity or whether it's about changing the nature of our population distribution for our migrant communities by offering a broader range of options. But, again, this all seems rather half developed. If we had the benefit in this place of deeper thinking and more considered work on a population plan rather than just a series of talking points, we would have the basis to more easily come together as a parliament in confidence that we will provide a vision for the future.

It's all well and good to talk about what's happening with the permanent migration intake, but the other point I'd ask the minister to consider is temporary migration, particularly when we are talking about regional communities, particularly when we are talking about exploitative arrangements and particularly in the context of some of the other debates that are going on—in particular, proposals still on foot this month to privatise our visa processing services. Again, Labor will be supporting this bill, but we expect answers to all of these questions, and Australians are entitled to expect them too.

A FAIR GO FOR AUSTRALIA