‘Skill up or Sink’: A New Approach to Migration in Australia

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‘Skill up or Sink’: A New Approach to Migration in Australia

Migration is a nation-building project, and Canberra’s review of its migration system reveals the need for new approaches.

‘Skill up or Sink’: A New Approach to Migration in Australia
Credit: Depositphotos

This week the Australian government released its review of the country’s migration system. Since taking office last May, the Labor Party has flagged the country’s migration system as not being fit for purpose – complex to navigate, slow to process, focused on the wrong sets of skills, and too reliant on temporary migration over the social benefits of citizenship. The review’s aim is to acknowledge and accentuate migration as a central pillar of Australia’s national strategy. 

In the post-World War II period the Australian government sold its migration program as “populate or perish” – a blunt acknowledgement that Australia’s population was too small to be able to secure itself. With this review, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has declared the new approach to be “skill up or sink.” It is a recognition that Australia is in a fiercely competitive market for global skills – particularly as birth rates decline – and that Australia’s current economic structure is not advantageous to what kind of country it needs to be. 

One of the central reforms that the review proposed is moving Australia’s migration system away from temporary migration as a central feature of the system. This was an aspect of the migration system that developed in the mid-1990s. It was designed to give businesses the flexibility to quickly and easily access global talent, but the system has become unwieldy and confused about what skills Australia actually needs, and why importing temporary skills are better than locking in permanent ones. 

There are currently 1.8 million people living in Australia on temporary visas. These are people who have no certainty to plan their future with, and a limited sense of belonging within Australia. Often people jump from temporary visa to temporary visa without any clear path toward permanency. The signal the current system sends to migrants is that Australia wants their labor and taxes, but not their civic participation. A shift away from this would also include Australia seeking to capture as many international students as possible as well. People who have developed their skills in Australia should be able to practice those skills in Australia. 

Another target is reducing the negative consequences within the current system. Many people’s temporary visas are tied to their employment, a circumstances that has rendered them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from employers. They also, subsequently, lack sufficient bargaining power to secure better wages. In order to try and nullify this, the government has stated that from July 1 the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold will be increased from AU$53,900 to AU$70,000 (US$35,500 to US$46,000). 

While not recommending abandoning temporary migration entirely, the review instead advocates giving people a clear and achievable pathway to permanent residency and citizenship. There is a recognition that citizenship is the optimal objective for many migrants, regardless of what type of visa they entered the country under. This is optimal for the migrant themselves, but also optimal for Australia as a whole. The nation earns nothing itself from dangling the prospect of citizenship out of reach to people. It gains a great deal by warmly embracing those who have chosen to live and work in Australia. 

Migration is a nation-building project. For a country with a massive landmass and a small population, migration is about enhancing the country’s overall capabilities. It is not only an economic injection, but it is also about Australia’s security – an ability to develop the skills and capacities the country needs to negotiate what will be an increasingly challenging century. Personal security and national security should be seen as intimately linked. Shifting the migration system to value permanent migration over temporary migration gives Australia a more solid national base to protect its peace and prosperity. 

Yet this also requires addressing a number of structural deficiencies in Australia that inhibit personal security, and restrict migration’s ability to be a national asset. The primary problem is that Australia’s housing market is fundamentally broken, with astonishing unaffordability for both renters and buyers. 

Everything positive, from personal health and well-being to the ability to develop skills and pursue careers of choice (rather than work of necessity) to enhancing overall social stability, is predicated on stable housing. Secure housing is the bedrock of society, and at present in Australia housing is quicksand. 

Restrictions on building new homes need to loosen and tax incentives for homeowners should be scrapped. Coupled with this needs to be a major investment in urban rail infrastructure, to give people quick and easy access to opportunity-laden areas of Australian cities. At present far too many cities have major transport deserts, placing further stress on people’s personal security as well as limiting productivity. 

If the objective of the new government is to recognize the positive contribution of migration, and to shift this migration toward the positivity of permanent settlement, then this sentiment needs to be extended to the other aspects of social security. Migration is undoubtedly nation-building, but migrants – and Australian citizens – require other tools to build with.