Submissions to the inquiry were all supportive of the legislation, with submitters agreeing that providing equitable access to government support and payments for the new skilled regional visa holders was a necessary step in encouraging uptake of the visas.
Charles Sturt University proposed that providing access for these visa holders to social services ‘is only fair given the contribution people on regional skilled visa[s] will make to industry, their communities and in taxes paid’.
The Migration Alliance supports the bill and the new skilled regional visas, and submitted that the initiative ‘will help with consistent intake of highly skilled persons into these much needed areas’.
Also supportive, the Australian Local Government Association pointed out that providing equitable access to government services and welfare payments for regional visa holders may ‘take potential pressure off councils which often have to fill service gaps when these services are not otherwise available’.
Universities Australia supported the policy intent of the bill but wants to ensure conditions that apply to the new skilled regional visas allow ‘a degree of flexibility’ for when personal or professional circumstances of migrants change.
Some submitters raised issues in relation to how the new skilled regional visas would operate, including:
concerns around the provisional nature of the visas and employer-employee relationships;
opposition to the intended definition of ‘regional areas’, which excludes the Gold Coast and Perth, along with east coast capital cities;
concerns about access to support for public school education and Medicare; and
concern that the existing foreign investment rules, approval processes, and fees may prevent these visa holders from purchasing property in regional areas.
Submitters from the higher education sector proposed that the government consider additional amendments to legislation in order to:
increase the variety of courses for which HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP are available to provisional skilled regional visa holders; and
exempt regional universities from:
having to pay a Skilling Australian Fund levy to nominate a visa holder;
having to meet age, skills assessment and work experience requirements in relation to nominees; and
having to meet Labour Market Testing requirements in relation to positions they seek to fill.
Issues raised by submitters are considered in this chapter.
Provisional nature of the visas
Some submitters were concerned that the creation of the new skilled regional visas indicates a broader shift away from more permanent migration programs, such as the employer-sponsored Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, towards more temporary types of visas.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) observed that migration programs are becoming more employer-driven, saying:
For much of the 20th century, Australia’s history of migration was largely based on permanent skilled, refugee and family reunions. Since the 1990’s however, migration policies have turned from permanent state-sponsored migration to that of temporary and employer driven migration, changing the relationship between workers and businesses.
The NTEU was concerned that the provisional nature of the scheme ‘tips the balance’ in favour of businesses, who often choose to use ‘precariously employed overseas workers’, rather than training locals.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) identified what it sees as a ‘shift in the employer-sponsored migration pathways for regional workers’ towards more temporary pathways, which may be less attractive to migrants.
The Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) visa (subclass 187) was abolished in March 2019, to be replaced by the new skilled regional visas. The ACCI submitted that the RSMS was ‘the only exclusive employer sponsored permanent migration pathway into regional Australia’, and expressed a concern that:
With the removal of the RSMS and the introduction of the new Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) visa (subclass 494) in its place, which has a wait time of three years before they can access permanent residency, this creates a level of uncertainty which may prove to be an impediment to attract migrants to the regions.
The ACCI also suggested that the provisional nature of the new visas may mean ‘[t]alented migrants looking for opportunities may chose the metro areas under a different stream that grant[s] immediate permanent residency’. This is because, ‘the most critical aspect of a migrant’s decision to move countries and make regional Australia their home [is] the stability and assurance of a permanent life in our country’.
There was concern that migrant workers may also be more vulnerable to exploitation. The NTEU submitted examples of such exploitation, including:
Underpayment of wages and superannuation, including being forced to pay back wages;
Abuse ranging from psychological to physical;
Threats of deportation if complaints are made or workers join unions; and
Being forced to live in sub-standard conditions.
According to the NTEU, exploitation of migrant workers is more common in regional areas, and ‘the current provisions to deal with exploitation of temporary workers have proven to be ineffective’.
The NTEU cautioned that:
The creation of additional temporary work visas – even if they have special conditions that allow access to a social welfare safety net and public education, including access to the Higher Education Loans Program (HELP) – only add a further layer to a temporary work system that is fundamentally flawed, with penalties for offending employers (even repeated ones) grossly inadequate, and where unions are legally limited in what they are permitted to do in investigating allegations of exploitation.
It is unclear whether the provisional subclass 494 visa is an effective way to tether migrants to the regions. The provisional nature of the new visa, even with the promise of a permanent residency at the three-year mark, does not compare with the security and stability provided by the RSMS, which was permanency on arrival.
Definition of ‘regional’
A number of submissions focussed on the definition of ‘regional areas’ that will apply to the new skilled regional visas. The designated regional areas will be identified in a separate legislative instrument, and will include all of Australia except for Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN), a collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney, RMIT University, University of South Australia and Curtin University, submitted that Perth should be classified as a regional area, arguing:
…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 has been at considerable disadvantage in relation to attracting international students to the state.
Bond University, Griffith University, William Buck Gold Coast and others submitted that the Gold Coast should be included in the definition of a regional area. Bond University said this is because:
The Gold Coast is the home of three quality universities and the higher education sector receives strong City and State Government support.
The Gold Coast therefore offers a compelling opportunity to grow Australia’s international education sector sustainably and deliver the consequent benefits to economic performance and national export revenues without intensifying the concerns of imbalance and congestion that are impacting upon some of our eastern State capitals.
Bond University further argued that the exclusion of the Gold Coast from the definition of a regional area ‘contravene[s] the objectives of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, by reducing ‘diversity and equity of access’.
Griffith University submitted:
It is highly incongruous that 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 1,315,346 more than twice that of the Gold Coast’s 663,321 according to 2018 data, is considered Regional over the Gold Coast.
The Gold Coast Regional Classification Business Case report, provided with the Bond University submission, disputes the idea that the Gold Coast has an unusually high growth rate:
Unlike Melbourne and Sydney, the recent growth of the Gold Coast is within expected population projections. The Gold Coast has had only one tenth (1/10) of the recent population growth of both Melbourne and Sydney. The Gold Coast population increase from 2017 to 2018 at 15,633 was only marginally greater than the long term annual average 2002 to 2018 (13,359). The population increase in Melbourne in 2018 was nearly seven times greater than that of Gold Coast Tweed; that of Sydney more than five times greater and Brisbane nearly three times greater…
The Gold Coast Regional Classification Business Case report further notes that:
The growth rate of Gold Coast City (classified as non-regional) in 2018 was 2.6%, less than the 2.8% in Sunshine Coast and Geelong 2.7% (both classified as regional).
On the other hand, the Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils, suggested the visas could be limited even further, and ‘given only to those that choose a regional area with a low or declining population base as an enticement’.
The Department of Home Affairs explained that the Gold Coast has been classified as ‘a metropolitan centre’ under the core skilled migration program since 1993. The department sighted the Gold Coast’s ‘high population growth rate’ as one of the key reasons. This growth rate, which sits around 2.6 per cent is ‘significantly’ higher than the average Australian growth rate of 1.6 per cent.
The department was also asked to explain the reasons Canberra and Adelaide are classified as regional. The department’s response is provided in full:
The current Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa (subclass 187) was introduced on 1 July 2012. Canberra and Adelaide have been classified as regional for this visa since that time.
Charles Sturt University (CSU) observed that the bill includes amendments which provide for new skilled regional visa holders to access tertiary education and training. However, CSU was concerned about what access children of holders of skilled regional visas would have to state schools, and what fees their parents would pay. CSU submitted:
Obviously, the Bill impacts access to Commonwealth social services, but not social services delivered by state and territory governments. To ensure equality of social services it will be critical that the Commonwealth, through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) work with the states and territories to ensure free and open access to state schools consistent with permanent residents.
Similarly, Rural Councils Victoria supported the bill, but submitted that:
…any 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. Sufficient funding from both state and federal levels of government needs to be provided for housing support, education and training services and community assistance programs.
In the Joint University Submission, participating universities recommended that the Commonwealth government ‘incentivise a consistent approach’ through COAG to encourage states and territories to ‘treat new skilled regional visa holders as if they were Australian permanent residents in relation to payment of school fees for enrolment in public schools’.
Access to Medicare
The Northern Territory Government submitted that it supports the bill, but believes the government should also provide access to Medicare for holders of the new skilled regional visas. Access to Medicare, it argued, would ‘lead to better settlement outcomes’ and is ‘imperative for these visa holders to remain in the Territory on a long-term basis’.
The NT Government acknowledged that changes to Medicare access are ‘outside the scope’ of the bill, and ‘would require a legislative instrument to be made under the Health Insurance Act 1973’.
The department confirmed that holders of the new skilled regional provisional visas ‘will have the same access to Medicare as Australian permanent residents’, which means they can apply for a Medicare card.
In order to facilitate this access, the Department of Health is in the process of amending the Health Insurance Act 1973.
HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP
Submitters from the education sector welcomed the provisions in the bill which would enable new skilled regional visa holders to access Commonwealth Supported Places and FEE-HELP for bridging courses that ‘pay all or part of their tuition fees for a unit of study that is part of a bridging course for overseas-trained professionals’.
However, La Trobe was concerned that FEE-HELP would not be available for courses other than bridging courses, saying:
This will be a significant financial disincentive. Accordingly, LaTrobe recommends that consideration should be given to making [all] loan programs (HECS-HELP or FEE HELP) available for both provisional regional skilled visa holders and permanent visa holders.
In a joint submission, the Australian National University, Central Queensland University, Charles Sturt University, Flinders University, James Cook University, the University of Adelaide, University of Canberra, UNSW Canberra, and the University of Wollongong (Joint University Submission), highlighted a possible area of concern around the capacity for new skilled regional visa holders to purchase property in regional areas. The submission states that:
…temporary residents generally need to apply for and receive foreign investment approval before purchasing any residential real estate in Australia. The application to the Foreign Investment Review Board also attracts a significant fee, starting from $5,700 with incremental increases depending on the value of the residential property.
Concerned this may act as a significant disincentive to settling permanently, the universities recommended that provisional skilled regional visa holders be ‘afforded the same rights as a permanent visa holder in relation to the purchase of residential property in a regional area’.
The department confirmed that new skilled regional visa holders would be able to purchase residential property in a regional area. However, it observed that:
Temporary residents generally need to apply for and receive foreign investment approval before purchasing residential real estate in Australia.
Exemptions for regional universities
The Joint University Submission proposed that exemptions available under the Employer Nomination Scheme (subclass 186), which relate to age, skills assessment, work experience and English language requirements, should also be made available for subclass 494 Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (provisional) visa applicants.
Further, the universities recommended the government make changes to legislation and legislative instruments to provide additional exemptions for regional university employers, including:
an exemption from having to pay the Skilling Australian Fund (SAF) Levy to nominate a new skilled regional visa holder; and
an expansion to the existing exemptions in relation to age, skills assessment and work experience requirements for Australian University sponsors ‘for professional and managerial positions’, including researchers, lecturers, faculty heads and other positions.
The submitters also argued that labour market testing (LMT) requirements put up ‘significant obstacles to universities in the recruitment of high-value business critical academic staff’ and impact their ability ‘to fill critical skills gaps amongst the ranks of their professional staff’.
As such, the participating universities recommended the government make changes to the law to exempt universities from LMT requirements (pursuant to section 140GBA of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth)) for academic appointments.
The universities also recommended regional universities be exempt from LMT requirements for occupations funded through Australian Research Council grants, National Health and Medical Research Council grants, and/or ‘similar competitive university, government or industry funded grants and/or fellowships’.
The department provided the following in response to questioning around exemptions for regional universities:
Subclass 494 Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (provisional) visa applicants applying for university lecturer or faculty head positions will have exemptions for age, skill assessment and employment experience. English language exemptions may be considered in the context of the labour agreement stream of the new visa.
The New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 is necessary to support the visas created by the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019.
The committee supports the creation of the new skilled regional visas under the government’s ‘Plan for Australia’s Future Population’, and notes that encouraging skilled migrants to take up positions in regional areas has benefits for creating growth in those areas, and taking pressure off Australia’s biggest cities.
The bill provides incentives for migrants to take up opportunities in regional areas under the new visa arrangements by providing fair access to government payments and supports, after standard waiting periods have been served.
The committee notes that the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019 are currently subject to a disallowance motion in the Senate. The bill, and the regulations which create the visas, work in tandem. As such, the committee suggests it would be prudent for the Senate to resolve the disallowance motion prior to passing the bill.
The committee notes that all of the submitters to this inquiry are supportive of the bill, though some raise concerns or make recommendations relating to the operation of the new skilled regional visas, or on related issues.
Most of the issues raised by submitters are not specific to the New Skilled Regional Visas (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019, and do not impact the committee’s support for the bill. This includes questions around how effective the visas may be in attracting skilled migrants to regional areas, and around the possible exploitation of visa holders by employers.
While these issues are not central to the bill, the committee takes submitter concerns seriously, and encourages the Department of Home Affairs to put in place ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of this visa scheme.
The committee appreciates the concerns raised by those who support regional classification for the Gold Coast, and notes that the classification of ‘regional areas’ that will apply to the new visas will be determined through a separate legislative instrument.
The department’s response to the committee’s request for information around why the Gold Coast is classified as ‘metropolitan’, while Canberra and Adelaide are classified as ‘regional’, was not sufficiently detailed to inform the committee’s views.
Regardless, the committee notes these classifications have been in place for some time. The committee suggests that a review of the existing classifications should be considered, taking into account the concerns of submitters to this inquiry.
In order for the new skilled regional visas to be effective in attracting skilled migrants to regional areas, the committee agrees that barriers to long-term settlement should be minimised. The committee believes it would be worthwhile for the government to review the requirement for provisional skilled regional visa holders to apply for and receive foreign investment approval in order to invest in residential property in regional areas. Alternatively, the government could consider exempting these visa holders from the fees associated with applying for foreign investment approval.
The committee thanks the participating universities for their extensive submission recommending exemptions for regional universities from various fees and requirements in relation to sponsoring migrants for new skilled regional visas. The committee notes the response from the department in relation to exemptions for lecturers and faculty heads, and encourages the minister and the department to engage directly with the submitters around these recommendations, with a view to supporting the regional education sector, which makes a valuable contribution to the economies of a number of regional areas and Australia more broadly.
The committee recommends that the Senate pass the bill, subject to resolution of the motion to disallow the Migration Amendment (New Skilled Regional Visas) Regulations 2019.
Senator Amanda Stoker