ABUL RIZVI. Is Bob Birrell Right on Australia’s Skilled Migration Program?

Australia has tentatively begun a debate about immigration – both the size of the annual intake and whether the country is choosing the right migrants. It’s a vital debate, but one that is open to misunderstanding, to producing more heat than light. With such a sensitive topic, the facts are critical.

In his March 2018 report, Australia’s skilled migration program: scarce skills not required, former Monash University immigration expert Bob Birrell again provides a valuable contribution to the debate.

While I do not agree with all his conclusions, he does make a good case for a review of Australia’s skilled migration visas to ensure these continue to support Australia’s long-term needs. Two areas that deserve particular consideration are visas that directly skilled migrants to regional areas of Australia to ensure these people do indeed settle in those areas, and the clarity of pathways to permanent migration for long-term temporary entrants to ensure these pathways are in Australia’s interests. Such a review should build on the excellent work of the Productivity Commission reviewing the migrant intake over the past decade.

Birrell correctly points out shortcomings in various visa categories, including the points tested categories and the state-sponsored categories. To those criticisms, I would add the ham-fisted changes announced in April 2017 to skilled temporary entry which add an extraordinary level of red tape and micro-management for no genuine purpose. It is no surprise that over the past year the Government has quietly been unwinding its own changes and is likely to continue to do so.

The core conclusion of Birrell’s report is that “skilled” migrants from non-English speaking countries (NESC) who arrived after the 2011 Census were less likely to be employed in a skilled occupation at the time of the 2016 Census than were the Australian-born or migrants from mainly-English speaking countries with similar skills.

But as Birrell would know better than anyone, high-level Census data is a poor tool for making conclusions regarding the effectiveness of skilled migration visa categories. Migrants who put “skilled” in response to a Census question may have entered Australia under range circumstances, including via the Humanitarian Program, the Family Stream; or as secondary applicants in the Skill Stream (eg the spouse of a primary skilled migrant).

Unlike primary migrants in the Skill Stream, people in these other categories will generally have migrated without having their professional skills assessed by the relevant Australian skills assessment body. Most would have their skills assessed after migrating, perhaps requiring them to undertake bridging courses and/or sitting relevant exams. Others, such as those who enter as parents, may never even try to secure recognition of their skills.

This is where assessing their success in the workforce gets complicated. Take the example of a nurse who migrates as a spouse in the Family Stream or as a Humanitarian Program entrant. He or she may need to do bridging courses to get overseas qualifications recognised in Australia. While doing such courses, the nurse may be employed as an orderly in a hospital (ie an unskilled occupation). This does not mean he or she is not contributing to the economy or is not valued by an employer. In time, they may well get their skills recognised, leading to employment in a skilled occupation.

Primary migrants in the Skill Stream must also meet the relevant English language requirements before they migrate. Because this is not required of other migrants, “skilled” migrants in other visa categories may need to undertake additional English language classes after arrival. This will further delay their ability to secure employment in a skilled occupation.

Another issue with the comparison Birrell makes is that a significant portion of applicants in the Skill Stream will have obtained permanent residence after they graduate as overseas students from an Australian university. Comparing the early employment experience of this group with that of all similarly skilled Australian-born is comparing apples and oranges. These migrants may need to work initially in entry-level positions that are not recognised as a skilled occupation. It would be more appropriate to compare the early employment experience of this group with recent Australian-born graduates of Australian universities.

It is surprising Birrell makes no reference in his report to the Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants (CSAM), which does survey primary migrants in the Skill Stream. The 2015 CSAM Report says “at the six-month stage of settlement, almost nine-in-ten Skilled Migrants (ie primary migrants in the Skill Stream) were employed. More than three quarters were working in full-time jobs and more than six-in-ten were in highly skilled employment. On the basis of these measures, Skilled Migrants significantly outperformed Australia’s general population. Skilled Migrants also had higher earnings on average than the Australian population, but unemployment was slightly worse than the national average.” It should be noted these are outcomes only six months after arrival.

Birrell is right to highlight in his report that the bulk of benefits from migration flow to businesses, and to people who hold shares in businesses. But this raises the question of how the benefits of immigration are distributed rather than whether the benefits exist. There is certainly a case for Government to ensure the benefits of migration are more equitably distributed.

Birrell also highlights the confused rationale the Government has been giving for current immigration policy settings. Its failure to properly explain the rationale of its approach (beyond stopping the boats and the vague comments from the Prime Minister about addressing skill shortages) is a serious problem.

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s comments in February regarding the positive impact of skilled migration on the Budget were an exception. But Birrell’s assertion that immigration may be a positive for the Commonwealth Budget but a negative for state budgets is not supported by the Productivity Commission’s 2016 Report on Australia’s Migrant Intake or by work done on this topic by Access Economics in the second half of the 1990s. And if migration was negative to state budgets, we would be hearing that loud and clear from current and former state premiers, not just Bob Carr.

It is of course a primary role of the Minister for Immigration to explain immigration policy. But Peter Dutton’s positive comments about skilled migration in his recent speech to the Press Club contrasted with his earlier comments on Radio 2GB to Ray Hadley where he (misleadingly) boasted about reductions to net migration since Labor was in Office (even though in 2016-17 net migration increased by over 50,000) and was much more open to cutting immigration in the future.

At the Press Club, Dutton sounded more like a Minister reading a speech written for him rather than anything he actually believes.

His real views are perhaps better reflected in his decision to allow the 2016-17 Migration Program to be delivered at around 6,400 visas below the announced target. It is very rare for immigration officials to miss the Migration Program target by more than a few hundred visas – indeed in many years, the program has been delivered right on target. My experience in the Department tells me Immigration officials would only miss the target by this degree if they were working to instructions to do so.

Does this mean Dutton deliberately disregarded Cabinet’s decision on immigration levels by allowing the program to fall short by such a large degree? What are the chances he will ensure the Migration Program in 2017-18 and in 2018-19 will again fall well short of the announced target? Are we looking at a minister, in a government that is clearly divided on the issue, reducing immigration by stealth?

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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