The new Immigration Minister

On 1 June 2022, the Hon Andrew Giles MP was sworn in as Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs.  Many might remember Minister Giles’ involvement in the infamous MV Tampa incident in 2001 which he credits for sparking an interest in politics that eventually saw him secure a seat in the House of Representatives in 2013.

What the ALP say about immigration

In the lead up to the May election, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) made it clear that it intends to strengthen pathways to permanent residency for migrant workers.

In the ALP’s National Platform for 2021, the following points were made in relation to the Albanese Government’s goal of building a stronger nation through migration:

“80. A strong but fair migration policy offers education, jobs, prosperity and citizenship, combined with opportunity, safety, security, rights and responsibilities. It provides the perfect recipe for a better Australia.”

“81. Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations on earth. Labor will ensure Australia’s migration favours permanent over temporary migration, to create a nation of people with equal rights and a shared interest in our national success”

“83. Labor’s priority is to ensure that job opportunities are offered to local workers first and that temporary migration will never be used as a means to undercut local wages, conditions and training opportunities. Skilled temporary migrants can help Australian businesses to thrive but will only be used where a verifiable skill shortage exists.”

“84. Labor will restore public confidence in Australia’s temporary migration program and ensure that temporary migration does not adversely affect the employment and training opportunities for Australians, particularly young people who suffer from higher rates of unemployment and underemployment.”

“88. Labor will ensure that no migrant is ‘permanently temporary’. We will align the permanent and temporary migration programs and ensure that, where appropriate, migrants have pathways to permanent visas and citizenship. We will encourage temporary visa holders to consider permanent residency where the visa holders are working under successful arrangements and have priority skills which are in shortage in Australia”

How will Australia’s Migration Program look under the ALP?

There is a clear theme presented by an Albanese led government that there will be a concerted effort to reduce reliance on temporary visas with a move towards simplified pathways to permanent residency in areas of skills shortages. The language towards short-term temporary visas being used by businesses to undercut wages and conditions for Australian workers will likely mean that there will be an increase in compliance for certain industries which has been a hallmark of Labor (particularly in trades occupations).

In addition, the overarching theme of removing “guest worker” status might suggest significant changes to the current pathways, particularly the use of various lists determining eligibility for permanent residence.

At present, Temporary Skilled Shortage visa holders who are sponsored under the Short Term Skilled Occupation List (STSOL) are ineligible for permanent residence (unless they qualify for certain concessions under the pandemic).  It may be the first step of the Minister to reconfigure the program by merging the occupation lists and introducing a different metric for qualifying for permanent residence.  The Grattan Institute has long heralded a system reliant on remuneration as the means of determining eligibility for permanent residence and given the recent changes to our closest neighbour (New Zealand) utilising a median pay rate for permanent residence eligibility, we might see a similar approach.

The strong factional influence of trades unions on Labor will likely mean that protecting Australian workers’ rights and avoiding the use of the current migration framework to undercut wages/conditions of Australian workers will be more heavily scrutinised. Ensuring strict adherence to remuneration of migrant workers to match Australian awards and enterprise agreements as well as introducing a new policy of offering “whistle-blower” status to any worker providing evidence of exploitation is also outlined in the most recent national platform.

Prominent Australian media outlets suggest that the Albanese Government intends to expand pathways to permanent residency. This is reflected in Matthew Knott’s article “Labor vows to stop Australia from becoming ‘guest worker nation’”, where he quotes Labor’s former immigration spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally. In this article, Keneally is quoted as saying “we need to reverse the model we were on that was putting Australia on a path to becoming a guest-worker nation” along with, “the economic model that has been developing in Australia is on that relied on a steady stream of temporary low-paid workers. That’s not good for workers, it’s not good for the economy and it’s not good for Australians”.

Although Kristina Keneally did not win her seat and was therefore unable to be included in the incoming National Cabinet, the overall sentiment and attitudes towards reforming the current migration framework still stand within the National Cabinet and importantly for the new Minister, Andrew Giles.

Although Keneally expressed a desire to expand pathways to permanent residency, through “it’s creating a permanent class of people – a second society where people are locked out of rights and service”, she maintained a firm stance on ensuring businesses would not circumvent local labour markets via “it’s about ensuring migration settings don’t make it easy for employers to skip labour market testing or pay lower wages to a temporary migration rather than vesting in the sills and opportunities for Australians.”

Whilst much of corporate Australia question the effectiveness of labour market testing, there are unlikely to be any significant changes in the current regulatory framework in that regard.  Overall, the Albanese Government has expressed their intention to make reforms within the immigration space, focusing on increasing pathways to permanent residency in areas of skills shortages while protecting Australian workers and working conditions from being undercut through the migration program.

Final Thoughts

The rhetoric around reducing Australia’s reliance on temporary visas to fill skill shortages must inherently be tied to our local education outcomes.  Since 2017, a fundamental requirement to sponsorship involved a contribution towards the Skilling Australia Fund which is a hefty levy for each year of visa sponsorship.  Perhaps, the key to reducing Australia’s reliance on the program is to direct the contribution against the industries which are relying on the TSS visa and other temporary variants such as the Training visa.

The purpose of the Fund is to ensure that businesses that benefit from employing migrants are also skilling Australians. It does this by encouraging improved employment outcomes in supporting the training needs of Australians prioritised towards apprenticeships and traineeships in industries and occupations in demand.

However, after more than 5 years, we have yet to see any tangible benefit to our economy as corporate Australia continues to struggle with skill shortages and a significant and prolonged talent drought (part of which can be contributed to the pandemic).  Whilst the Fund does contribute to much-needed education, the eventual outcomes have been delayed by planning and bureaucracy.  Given the exponential rate at which business and technology change, the archaic system administering the Fund should also be overhauled.

Whilst the ALP look to overhaul the Migration Program, it will only truly work in parallel with changes to how Australians view education and the skills needed now and in the future.

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