A new visa category for regional migrant workers coupled with a regional policy rejig could reverse the population decline in regional towns across the country, according to the Regional Australia Institute think tank.
But are decision makers listening? We may find out today. The government has hinted at regional visa reforms, but with no specific plans.
This morning the RAI launches its Missing Workers policy in front of leading regional MPs in Canberra today.
The RAI said regional decline can be fixed with an ongoing annual intake of up to 3000 migrants who would be required to go bush, take up full-time employment in areas of identified demand and stay for at least five years.
The scheme is not without obstacles. What happens if the support services for new migrants falls short? Can the local housing market cope? And what happens if the weather or global market play their usual tricks on regional employers and reduce jobs demand?
RAI chief executive Jack Archer said the same risks exist for urban migrants and urged regional MPs to champion regional growth.
“This is their core constituency, especially for the Nationals, and an opportunity to support rural towns across the country. It should be a no brainer,” Mr Archer said.
While large regional centres are thriving across the country, regional and rural towns are dying, losing older residents by natural attrition while young adults move in droves to larger towns.
At a time when migration is contributing about 40 per cent of Australia’s population growth, the RAI reckons one of a major cause of regional decline is that smaller towns simply cannot fill a significant portion of the full-time jobs on offer.
Under-manned businesses could get an immediate boost from new workers. And when they ramp up, large local employers like meatworks, cotton gins, packing sheds and so on will generate a multiplier effect in service and supply sectors.
“If we give businesses confidence that they can get long-term workers that will trigger the agricultural sector and service businesses,” Mr Archer said.
“Government’s role would be to make sure the towns’ needs are real and that they have adequate support services to help integration, such as housing and settlement services.
“A town would only require modest resources to help towns get organised. We’re only talking a couple of million bucks.”
Mr Archer bases his argument on the success one-off regional migration schemes local towns have instigated - including Nhill, Pyramid Hill, Mingoola, Biloela, Dalwallinu, Hamilton, Rupanyup and Nobby which are reaping the rewards of regional migration.
On the demand side of RAI’s policy are the local communities. They would be need to demonstrate their unfulfilled demand for workers to qualify for migrant workers.
“We’ve seen the community-lead approach works, where towns got together and had a conversation among businesses, local government, services and the residents and said ‘let’s identify the migrants we need,’” Mr Archer said.
“We’re asking government to back that strategy across the board.”
On the supply side is the relatively modest request for an annual allocation of around 3000 five-year regional worker visas.
These regional visas would require a change to the skilled migration program.
The scheme currently issues visas to workers with skills that tick a list of about 30 vocational shortages. The RAI argues the skills list should be expanded on a case-by-case basis to include a worker intake - depending on what a town is running short on.
The agricultural sector would be a centrepiece of the employment strategy. One priority area, among a host of industries including cotton processing, forestry and horticulture is meat processing.
Meat plans are often the major local employer. The Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) said 63pc of them advertised to fill vacancies every week last year.
The industry has a national shortfall of about 3000 workers, which AMIC said is not caused by locals being unwilling to work.
“Almost 90pc of the 400 skilled labour vacancies advertised by meat processors Australia-wide last year were filled by locals, but there was still a gap which basically wasn’t filled at all,”said AMIC chief executive Patrick Hutchinson.
“Two thirds of the 2000 unskilled jobs advertised in the past year have also been filled locally, but that remaining gap is even bigger.”
Mr Archer said the relatively modest regional migrant scheme could help tackle national migration problems.
“An important part of the discussion around high migration to cities should be fixing regional migration flow,” he said.
The risks associated with regional worker visas are not unique, Mr Archer said, arguing smaller towns can offer advantages to migrant workers who lose their job.
“It’s a risk across the migration system, and the rural risks can be exaggerated. Things change in the city too.”
“But with regional migration you get people who you know are good workers, they’re committed to the place and are connected into local networks. We could be too cautious and we leave those towns stranded.”
“Making this a community-lead process should make a real difference in this debate. It will make sure communities are welcoming. It won’t be strange to see new people in the street, everyone will be glad they’re at the local meatworks and can get them to the footy and to socialise.”
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.