OPINION: Sending migrants to regional centres is not the answer

FACTS: Many migrants will keep congregating in the big cities because that's where the jobs and education opportunities are.
FACTS: Many migrants will keep congregating in the big cities because that's where the jobs and education opportunities are.

The federal government’s plan to encourage more migrants to settle permanently in regional Australia – largely as a way to ease the population burden on Sydney and Melbourne – could prove to be misguided, ineffectual and create more problems than it solves.

It is true that overseas migrants overwhelmingly gravitate to Australia’s major cities. Last year, more than 80 per cent of Sydney’s population growth was due to overseas migration. However, Australia’s permanent migrant intake is largely demand-driven. It depends on the skills that are in high demand by Australian employers – not on the capacity of Australian cities and towns to “absorb” higher populations.

And the idea that we can somehow evenly distribute migrants across Australia is illogical. Much of the demand for skilled labour is concentrated in the major cities. The government can’t magically move thousands of jobs from Sydney and Melbourne to Tamworth and Bendigo overnight.  

Furthermore, the skills required for jobs in Sydney are not necessarily the skills needed in Wagga Wagga. A data scientist, for example, is unlikely to be offered a job as an agricultural engineer.

We should also not forget there are already incentives for skilled migrants to settle outside the major cities. Australia has a specific category of employer-sponsored visa for regional areas, to address skills shortages. Governments are also able to sponsor migrants based on their own assessments of local skills shortages. For example, NSW’s current skilled occupations list for regional areas includes engineers, mechanics, farmers and nurses.

Moreover, the government has a number of measures in place to make it easier for regional employers to sponsor skilled migrants; including fee waivers and priority processing for visas.

As a consequence of this system, Australia’s regional migration intake is already substantial. Last year, regional and state-specific visas jointly accounted for 36,000 or nearly 30 per cent of the total permanent, skilled migration intake.

But if the government’s objective is to ease the population burden on Sydney and Melbourne, there is no guarantee that offering more incentives for migrants to settle in regional locations will have lasting effects.  

It is one thing to offer permanent residency conditional on regional settlement; it is another thing to ensure that migrants remain there for the long-term.

There is no guarantee that offering more incentives for migrants to settle in regional locations will have lasting effects.

After all, the government ended up closing a rural scholarship program for medical students in 2015, following concerns about city-centric medical students attempting to shirk their rural placements.  

Similarly, many migrants demonstrate a strong preference for living in the major cities; often because they are accustomed to large cities or because their families and compatriots are based there.

Without infringing people’s right to freedom of movement, it is difficult to see how the government could impose binding conditions on where migrants permanently settle in Australia.

And some parts of regional Australia are not necessarily better equipped than the major cities to absorb high levels of migration. We often hear concerns about shortages of health and medical services. Many rural areas also suffer from a lack of transport and communications infrastructure.

There are also sensitivities around bringing skilled migrants into regional areas that suffer from high local unemployment. This is partly why the government set up the Skilling Australia Fund: employers who sponsor skilled migrants are required to contribute to the fund, which is used to support local apprenticeships and traineeships.

Regardless of government policies to facilitate regional migration, many migrants are likely to continue congregating in Sydney and Melbourne. This is because the majority of our total migrant intake is made up of temporary migrants. And international students – who make up the largest cohort of temporary migrants – often base themselves in the major cities out of necessity, because that is where most of our universities and training institutes are located.

Given these issues, it is clear that channelling more permanent migrants into regional Australia will not be a neat and tidy solution to the skills shortages in those areas, or the urban congestion in Sydney and Melbourne – and will risk creating new problems for regional areas at the same time.

Eugenie Joseph is a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.