Tudge’s Global Talent Task Force – Spin or Substance?

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge on 4 September announced a ‘Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce’ as part of the Government’s JobMaker Plan. Sadly it seems Tudge’s announcement looks increasingly like spin over substance.

The new Taskforce will be headed by property and real estate lobbying guru Peter Verwer. According to the Australian Financial Review, when he was CEO of the Property Council, Verwer recruited Scott Morrison as a lobbyist.

Turning on his marketing and buzz word generator, Tudge says the Taskforce will “operate as a ‘strike team’ to turbo charge the creation of jobs by boosting our efforts to attract high value global business and exceptional talent”.

Does it seem Mr Verwer’s real estate and lobbying skills may have already been put to good use writing Tudge’s press release?

While Tudge says Australia has not done anything like this since the 1950s, the fact is that Commonwealth and state governments have been trying to attract overseas businesses, particularly regional headquarters, to Australia for decades.

Some have been successful but mostly governments have ended up getting their fingers burnt in trying to out-bid other countries for these.

There is nothing wrong with trying to attract successful business people to set up businesses in Australia or trying to attract highly skilled people. They mostly do create jobs for Australians and improve our productivity.

Australia has for more than 30 years had a business migration program of various designs with varying levels of success as well as scandal. Some recent scandals have been noted in the Australian Financial Review (see here and here).

At the end of June 2019, the Department of Home Affairs had on hand about 23,000 applications from people to migrate to Australia on the basis of their business background and a commitment to invest and/or run businesses in Australia. But as Tudge had only allocated about 6,000 places for these, the backlog is likely to have continued to grow.

So why not just clear the backlog of business migration applications rather than trying to drum up new applications?

Firstly, clearing a backlog of your own making is hardly very sexy and may in fact attract unhelpful questions – you don’t create a task force headed by a friend of the Prime Minister just to clear a backlog

Secondly, Tudge may argue these business applicants are just run of the mill and he really wants super-duper business people. But if that is the case, why not just raise the bar for business migration applicants? Make them invest larger sums in Australia or have a much more impressive business background. Perhaps even check the business background and proposed business plans of applicants more closely?

But that’s just boring policy and administrative work.

Another problem Tudge may have with the current backlog of business migration applications is that the bulk of them are from mainland China. That may be creating concerns among our national security agencies.

Now that we are no longer best friends with China, as we were when Tony Abbott was singing the praises of our Free Trade Agreement with China back in 2015, perhaps Tudge wants applications from elsewhere? And he virtually says as much by listing the United States, the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong as places where his Taskforce will look to recruit businesses.

Finally, the Taskforce is also going to recruit ‘exceptional talent’.

The problem is that government committees are rarely good at recruiting talent. That is best done by employers who know the skills they want and where to find them.

The problem for Tudge is that Dutton made such a mess of our employer-sponsored migration arrangements in 2017-18 that visa grants in these categories have been plunging. This is usually the sign of a weak economy but currently it is also a sign of poor visa design.

Rather than fix the employer-sponsored migration mess Dutton created, Tudge has decided to modify another visa category and give it an exciting new name (the Global Talent Independent visa) to bring in high skilled migrants that employers want.

This category has the advantage of almost unlimited flexibility, no formal skills assessment or English language requirement and no pesky obligations on the part of the nominating organisation/employer. That carries advantages of speedy decision-making.

And that is fine if numbers are small, applicants are of genuinely very high skill who are processed by a very small number of decision-makers trained to do so.

But this spells trouble once numbers get large. The risks of bribery and corruption become unacceptably high.

Finally, you have to ask what the thousands of university academics and researchers who have lost their jobs are thinking? Aren’t their talents worth retaining?

Sadly it seems Tudge’s announcement looks increasingly like spin over substance.

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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 the reshaping of Australia's intake to focus on skilled migration, slow Australia's rate of population ageing and boost Australia's international education and tourism industries. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia's immigration policies.

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