I’m trying to keep my toe(s) in the water of a range of different of Senate and Parliamentary Committee Inquiries at the moment. Following on from spending the last couple of days focused on the petrol sniffing inquiry, I attended public hearings today in Brisbane into an inquiry by the Joint Migration Committee into overseas skills recognition, licensing and related issues for migrants to Australia.
In a world of ever-changing skills and trades, it is hard to get this issue precisely right. However, I do find it puzzling that the government is increasing our intake of people on skilled permanent visas to record levels – close to 100 000 this year – when there are still so many problems with matching migrants’ skills and qualifications with what is required in Australia. This problem is exacerbated when you also add the sizeable number of people receiving temporary skilled and business visas.
A separate Senate inquiry is being held which touches on other labour market related migration issues. This is examining the viability of allowing people from Pacific Island countries to come to Australia on some form of temporary unskilled employment visas. These are sometimes called ‘guest workers’, although I think this is a bit misleading. We already have over 100 000 working holiday visas issued each year, which play a key role in filling gaps in the unskilled labour market, such as seasonal agricultural and hospitality work. I shouldn’t pre-empt the findings of the inquiry, but personally, I’m not sure why allowing people to come from Pacific Island countries is so dramatically different to this.
Here are a couple of pieces on the topic. Firstly, an opinion piece from last year by Hugh White:
Be careful what you wish for. Two years ago John Howard went to Auckland to tell the leaders of the South Pacific to take a hard look at their collective future. They agreed and developed a Pacific Plan, which could one day become the stepping stone to a regional confederation among Australia and its small neighbours.
Now Howard faces a test: if he is serious about Pacific integration, he must allow Pacific Islanders to come and work in Australia on short-term visas.
Secondly, an article outlining the contents of a federal government commissioned report by a taskforce on foreign aid:
Australia will have to open its doors to potentially tens of thousands of unskilled migrants to save its smaller Pacific island neighbours from economic ruin, a report commissioned by the Federal Government has found. The report, by a taskforce on foreign aid, argues that the plight of the island nations has become so dire that urgent remedies, notably moving abroad in search of job opportunities, are necessary to keep them viable.
The tiny states of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu are cited as the economies most in need of a migration fix. But the report also points to Melanesian nations like Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with their larger populations.
Late last year, the Prime Minister, John Howard, flatly rejected a request from Pacific island leaders to allow seasonal workers into the country, arguing that it would simply create a new pool of visa overstayers.
Another inquiry which has just been initiated is a review of Australia’s trade and investment relations with New Zealand under the Closer Economic Relations (CER) Agreement. Whilst the CER is a classic, long standing (and in my view highly successful) bi-lateral agreement, I think it could also be used to provide more constructive engagement with many countries in the South Pacific too.
These inquiries might all seem to be dry examinations of technical aspects of immigration and trade policy, but to me they show why immigration is so central to economic prosperity and economic opportunities for our whole region. It raises a range of difficult consequential matters that need to be addressed, but the wider social and economic benefits are significant if the opportunities are grasped and these things are done well.