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Monday, 26 March 2001
Page: 25618

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (5:18 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Integrity of Regional Migration Schemes) Bill 2000, the import of its content, and to support the comments made by the shadow minister, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about my home state of Tasmania, particularly my region of Mersey-Lyell in north-west Tasmania and because, at the same time, it gives me an opportunity to comment on the question of population, its unfortunate decline in Tasmania since 1996 and the policies and programs designed to improve that, particularly under the present Labor government. The bill as it stands amends the Migration Act 1958 to introduce a new visa cancellation scheme for Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visas. In effect, the bill is designed to provide the minister with power to cancel a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa.

The Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme encourages the migration of skilled persons, particularly for the benefit of regional and rural Australia. The scheme was established, as a pilot, in 1995 in recognition of the fact that regional and rural Australia have difficulty in attracting and retaining skilled migrants to alleviate local skills shortages. The Migration Regulations 1994 provide that a criterion for the grant of a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa is that the visa applicant has been nominated by an employer in respect of an approved appointment that will provide full-time employment for at least two years.

The Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme is one of a number of schemes, collectively called state specific migration mechanisms, which provide state and territory governments with the opportunity to influence the number and the profile of skilled migrants settling in their areas. It is important to reiterate the intent of these schemes. They are very important to rural and regional Australia, particularly in terms of assessing their effectiveness. The objectives of these mechanisms are to address skill shortages that may exist in the jurisdictions so mentioned, to attract overseas business people to establish new or joint ventures, and to encourage a more balanced dispersal of Australia's skilled migrant intake.

Since 1995, there has been an increasing trend of Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa grants. For example, in 1996-97, 170 visas were granted; in 1997-98, 581 visas were granted; in 1998-99, 765 visas were granted; and, in 1999-2000, 640 visas were granted. Out of the total planned intake of 82,000, that is not remarkably significant. However, it does play an important role, as mentioned by the shadow minister. Under the state specific migration mechanisms, a total of 3,309 visas were granted in the period 1999-2000—up from 1,126 in 1996-97—out of a total planned intake of 82,000. As has been mentioned earlier, more than half of these have gone to South Australia, the state which most actively promoted the mechanisms.

An applicant for a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa must meet certain entry requirements, and rightfully so, including: the requirements for lodging a valid visa application; hold a visa of an acceptable kind or before becoming an unlawful non-citizen have held an acceptable visa—for example, temporary business, medical practitioner, business long stay, et cetera; be nominated by an approved employer for an approved appointment in Australia; be under 45, except in exceptional circumstances; have a diploma or higher degree that is relevant to the appointment, except in exceptional circumstances; arrange an assurance of support if one is requested; meet health and character requirements; be likely to settle in Australia without undue difficulty or cost; and, if their application includes a family member under 18, meet the special custody and best interests of the child requirements. Employers, on the other hand, must have the appointment approved by certain bodies—for example, chambers of commerce.

In order to gain a more even distribution of skilled migrants across the country, substantial concessions are made in relation to the criteria for the grant of a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa. These include the need only for diploma level qualifications and the possible waiver of language and age requirements. However, the key criterion for the grant of a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa relates to employment in Australia. The criterion is that the visa applicant has been nominated by an employer in respect of an approved appointment and that the appointment will provide full-time work for at least two years in regional or rural Australia. This requires a two-year contract of employment between the visa applicant and the nominating employer. The purpose of the amendments before the House is to safeguard against any potential misuse of the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme and to discourage persons who do not have any genuine intention of settling in regional or rural Australia.

The amendment is supported not only by this side of the House but also by the Business Advisory Panel which provides expert advice on the government's business entry programs. The proposed new visa cancellation scheme will, subject to certain requirements, enable the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to cancel a person's Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa if the minister is satisfied that either the person has not commenced the employment referred to in the relevant employer nomination within a period prescribed in the regulations or the person commenced the employment referred to in the relevant employer nomination and the employment terminated within the required employment period of two years. Likewise, cancellation may occur if the person does not satisfy the minister that either he or she made a genuine effort to commence that employment within that period or he or she has made a genuine effort to be engaged in that employment for the required employment period—and rightly so.

The scheme will not affect existing Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa holders or a person who is granted a Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa as a result of a visa application made before the amendments to the act commence. Rather, it will apply only to Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visas granted after the amendments to the act. The shadow minister's request of the minister at the table is indeed worthy of consideration, particularly where an investigation can show that the employee really was not responsible for the termination of that employment. That is only sensible.

In terms of my home state of Tasmania, I think it is of little news to people that Tasmania is certainly experiencing population decline—certainly since 1996—and is undertaking serious consideration of programs to arrest this. I know the Tasmanian government has had communication with the minister and his department and is undertaking certain arrangements to best tackle some of the issues which I will refer to a bit later on. Tasmania's population exhibited continuous growth for all of the past century—except for 1941—until December 1996. The decline since 1996, as I have mentioned, has made population a major policy issue for successive Tasmanian governments. It is clear that a growing population is very important for ensuring that Tasmanians continue to enjoy a high standard of living and is indeed important for a vibrant Tasmanian economy and community into the future.

I point out that population decline in Tasmania has not been a cause, but rather a consequence, of Tasmania's poor economic performance for most of the 1990s. While population issues are indeed complex, it is clear that the overwhelming cause of Tasmania's population decline has been the increased outflow of working age Tasmanians as a result of the decline of job opportunities, as I mentioned, in the 1990s. It is expected that the population decline will cease and that within 18 months Tasmania's population will be growing as a result of the recent expansion in the economy, particularly with the number of new jobs created in Tasmania since February 1999. Since that time, total employment in Tasmania has risen by around 9,000, or 4.6 per cent. Tasmania's estimated total population at June 2000 was 470,376 persons and, according to ABS estimates, that represented a loss of about 4,000 people from when Tasmania's population peaked in September 1996 at 474,196.

Increased job opportunities inevitably result in a reduced outflow of those people seeking employment opportunities elsewhere and in more people being attracted to live in Tasmania. It is already clear that the rate of population decline has slowed significantly from when employment growth was first restored in February 1999. The creation of new jobs and greater job opportunities for Tasmanians on a long-term sustainable basis has been the key policy objective of the Bacon government since taking office in September 1998.

The link between jobs and population is well understood and has been clearly demonstrated in many developed countries, most notably Ireland, which achieved a reversal of population decline through improved economic performance and jobs growth. Government programs and strategies designed to address population issues in Tasmania include the following: industry development plan and financial strategy; skills response program; business migration and international business relocation program; investment attraction missions; competitiveness strategy; government marketing, promotion and publications; public sector job security initiatives; multicultural policy; arts development policy; and an international students program.

The government also recognises that, if unchecked, the recent strong out-migration of young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 will reduce future fertility levels, which in turn will impact adversely on longer term population growth and, of course, this impacts on immigration. The availability of greater job opportunities for those in this age group will not only assist in achieving population growth in the short term but also help address longer term fertility issues by dealing with the underrepresentation of those in the child bearing age groups within the overall population. Tasmania's fertility rates and mortality rates are similar to the national trends. However, this will remain the case only if the underlying problem of population decline is addressed effectively. In Tasmania around 25,000 people, or over five per cent of the population, are moving to, or leaving, the state annually. However, from 1996 this has resulted in a net loss in population, primarily in the most fertile age group of 20- to 34-year-olds. Why is this so? The overwhelming reason why a significant increase in Tasmanians leaving the state occurred was that, throughout most of the 1990s, local job opportunities were limited relative to the rest of Australia. The experience for too many Tasmanians throughout that period was that job opportunities were so scarce for a prolonged period that job seekers left not only the labour market in increasing numbers—as evidenced by the declining participation rate—but also the state. Tasmania's population level will always be relative to its economic performance. Commonsense would indicate this correlation. If honourable members would like to do some detailed investigation of that, I recommend a parliamentary research paper written by Graeme Hugo titled `Regional development through immigration? The reality behind the rhetoric',research paper No. 9, 1999-2000. I found that very interesting and rewarding. I would like to make some comments a bit later on some of those conclusions.

Although the government in Tasmania recognises that there will always be interstate departures, the important point is that sustained job growth prevents forced interstate departures. The Tasmanian economic recovery since the beginning of 1999 has already impacted on departures from Tasmania. As at January 2001, there was an all-time record of 202,200 Tasmanians employed, a declining unemployment rate of 9.1 per cent and a growing participation rate—that is, those in work or looking for work—of 59.8 per cent. Since the beginning of 1999 until January 2001, around 9,000 additional jobs have been created. Tassie's jobs growth after that same period—4.6 per cent—has been higher than the jobs growth in the nation as whole, at 4.4 per cent. Of the 9,000 jobs created, about half have been full time. One of the misconceptions in recent times has been that the Tasmanian economic recovery has been diminished because of part-time jobs. This clearly is not the case. At the same time that job numbers have grown strongly, the average number of hours worked by those same people has remained steady, at around 33 hours.

In terms of international migration, the Tasmanian government has been working actively with the Commonwealth and initiating new state based programs and policies to increase international migration to Tasmania. For example, the government has set out to strengthen its cooperation with the Commonwealth. Minister, I believe government representatives met with you in February and in November 2000 with very positive outcomes, such as greater flexibility in assisting Tassie to establish more business migrants in the state. Tasmania's industry development plan is very important for this purpose. Business migration applications are to be processed in Hobart rather than in Sydney and I believe there will be direct contact between state and Commonwealth officers. This relationship will lead to greater efficiencies and understanding. The Department of State Development is an active participant in Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs working parties. Also in my state non-government service providers are extensively used and valued. We have also developed a multicultural policy and have worked on international migrant missions, particularly to South Africa—on a number of occasions—Korea and the UK.

The skills response unit and skills database programs in conjunction with the Commonwealth Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme are very important in that the skills database is able to identify skill shortages and make recommendations about the entry of international migrants to the state. In 1999-2000, 83 international migrants were assisted through this program. The skills response unit and skills database are used to target individuals—and their accompanying families should that be relevant—outside of the state with specific skill sets to meet skill shortages in Tasmania. During 1999-2000, 22 intending business migrants made exploratory visits to the state. The number of skilled migrants who now reside in Tasmania through the assistance of regional sponsored migration schemes are, in 1998-99, 71; in 1999-2000, 83; in 2000-01, 54, until January 2001. Most of the positions filled by international migrants utilising the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme are highly skilled and well paid—for example, doctors, power system engineers and geologists. The Tasmanian government is confident that the number of exploratory visits by business migrants in 1999-2000, coupled with the current target of programs and resources, will deliver record numbers of business migrants in 2000-01 and in 2001-02.

Finally, Graeme Hugo, in his report that I mentioned earlier, does in fact question the efforts and expenditure to try to attract newly arrived immigrants to regional areas in Australia, particularly one like my own. He believes in fact that perhaps more emphasis should be placed on those people already living in Australia and seeking relocation.(Time expired)