Parliamentary speeches

Report of the inquiry into Migration in Regional Australia

August 25, 2020

I rise to make some brief remarks on the report of the inquiry into migration in regional Australia. I would like to acknowledge all the work of the members who contributed to the report, particularly the chair, and my great friend, the deputy chair, the member for Calwell. I would also like to acknowledge, as the shadow minister did in his remarks, the contribution of the 131 individuals and organisations who submitted to the inquiry, some of whom had the opportunity to present evidence to the inquiry. The circumstances are such that much of this work has not been dealt with. I want to assure all those individuals and organisations that in Labor we take seriously the contributions they have made to this inquiry. While the report itself indicates the inquiry has been foreshortened, our interest has not been similarly shut down on the Labor side, because there are some very significant issues to be addressed in this place, particularly as we consider the potential for rethinking our migration program broadly as, hopefully, in the not too distant future, our international borders can be safely reopened.

The report does highlight the challenges of ensuring that settlement works in regional community for skilled and for humanitarian entrants. We need to focus on both of these challenges and we have an opportunity to do better in this interregnal period. It is important to acknowledge that migration to regional Australia supports local communities and also enhances the economies of those regions. This is a laudable objective and, I'm sure, widely shared in this place. I particularly want to note Wagga Wagga City Council's contribution to the report in highlighting the social benefits that regional migration can bring. In its submission to the inquiry it said:

Wagga’s multi-cultural community has developed and supported highly successful events such as Fusion, which is a multicultural Street Festival and the region’s biggest outdoor live music festival. It combines the music, food and culture of our community. In addition to Fusion, the diverse community has helped Wagga become a more progressive society through our Refugee Week, sporting clubs, Spring Jam, and Mardi Gras events.

This is one example of many humanitarian settlements that have been so successful and so important to so many regional communities, highlighted in this report and otherwise.

But it is important to recognise that these objectives have not been effectively supported by a series of decisions undertaken by this government over the past seven years. We know all about the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's record of cutting support to settlement services. The government has had seven years to deliver for regional Australia in this regard and has failed fundamentally to deliver the social support networks and services that are needed to support regional communities and to support effective settlement into those communities by migrants, both skilled and humanitarian.

Members will be aware that, eventually, the Morrison government released the Shergold review into refugee and humanitarian settlement, more than a year after it was commissioned by the Prime Minister himself—a report that we on this side of the House chased for some time. Reading the report made clear why the government sat on it for so long—because, in many respects, it's a damning indictment. It raised concerns about the coordination failure of refugee settlement services and said this needed to be remedied as a matter of urgency. It also addressed the failure in helping refugees find meaningful work. These are issues which could and should have been explored through this inquiry. I trust that there will be other forms of this House as well as decisions of executive government that will enable us to look into these questions and find much more satisfactory answers than those which this government has provided.

The lack of support services from government for new migrants in regional areas is a matter of great concern. It has resulted in many not being provided with the services they need to successfully settle into new communities. Representatives of both state and local governments who appeared before this inquiry were keen to see the Commonwealth provide more resourcing and much more leadership in this area.

In some parts of regional Australia, housing shortages present a further barrier for successful regional migration outcomes, with new migrants often struggling to find appropriate accommodation. Again, a general perception, as evidenced in the submissions, is that when migrants arrived it was found that the Commonwealth had done little to ensure that communities had what they needed to provide for them and that, rather, this task was largely handballed to state and local governments to do the heavy lifting without adequate support or an adequate framework within which this support could be situated.

It's important to note the contribution made by Settlement Services International in respect of settlement capacity. They argued:

Regional migration policy at all levels is constrained by a poor understanding of relative settlement capacity in different regions. This undermines the establishment of effective national, state and local policy settings, as well as preventing targeted investment to overcome barriers in settlement and retention of migrants in regional communities.

This is a very important submission that, unfortunately, has not been adequately reflected by the government to date. I hope this report is a basis for further action from the minister. The report is also quite damning in respect of the Commonwealth's establishment, with great fanfare, of designated area migration agreements. I don't want to go into great length about this, but the report shows that this is not an approach that can be regarded as a silver bullet. Instead, the government should have regard to the breadth of contributions evidenced in submissions to this inquiry.

We've seen in regional communities a consistent endeavour to go above and beyond in welcoming migrants and, in particular, refugees. Labor welcomes any step to encourage resettlement in the regions. But any resettlement targets the Morrison government proposes must be regarded as meaningless in the absence of proper support services, including funding, and a framework within which those support services can effectively be situated. We on this side of the House recognise that refugees, in particular, have too often lived incredibly painful and traumatic lives. When they settle in Australia, we need to be doing everything we can to help these people get the support they need to find work and integrate into the community. I hope that submissions to this report go some way to achieving this objective.