4 December 2020

Half a century ago my parents emigrated to Melbourne from struggling post-war Italy. Australia offered them hope for a better future, one simply not available to them had they stayed in their respective homes of Bari and Conza della Campania.

As my parents discovered, working people could come and put down roots and find opportunity in this wide, brown land. They arrived with little more than the contents of their respective suitcases, but they worked hard, eventually bought a modest home in the suburbs, raised their children, and lived a fulfilling, happy life together.

This is our cherished old migration story and vividly reflected in the lives of the hundreds of thousands who came to Australia post World War Two; people in search of a better future for themselves and their children, the chance to live a good life. In turn, migrants played a significant role in building Australia’s prosperity. It is very much the story of modern Australia. Sadly, things are very different in 2020.

For more than two decades our migration program has shifted from being mostly premised on permanence to a system based on transience. Today, our migration program focusses heavily on temporary migrants; international students, skilled workers who fill short-term gaps, seasonal workers who labour in semi-skilled jobs or backpackers working short stints to extend their visas.

There lies great opportunity for Australia in broadening the scope of our policy settings and focussing on permanent migration, particularly as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. There would be enormous benefits for regional communities which, when scaffolded by renewed investment in infrastructure and services, could better rely on permanent migration for growth.

All this would put the good life in Australia more easily within the reach of people who come here hoping for that chance. For Labor, investing to make a good life more achievable in regional Australia is fair, equitable, smart and good politics.

The Howard years

There were two significant shifts in migration policy in Australia under Prime Minister John Howard between 1996 and 2007; the move from permanent forms of migration to temporary, and the efforts to encourage migrants to settle in regional Australia.

Undoubtedly, one of the key legacies of the Howard Government was and will be the increase in temporary migration it encouraged and implemented.

There are three relevant moments to this; 1) the late 1990s policy shift to open up Australia’s borders to temporary migrants; 2) the 2001 federal election and the focus on ‘Tampa’; and 3) subsequent changes to citizenship requirements that began in September 2005.

These three factors have turned Australia from a nation of permanent migrants into one with a growing exploited and excluded temporary migrant worker class.

In the late 1990s, it was factors including a rapidly ageing population and severe skills shortages that led to several initiatives to broaden Australia’s intake of temporary migrants, including the introduction of the Migrant Occupations in Demand List (MODL) as well as international marketing campaigns designed to promote Australia’s education and training services industry. Importantly, policies of the day included clear pathways improve qualifications and build the skills of temporary migrants to allow them to eventually meet requirements for permanent residency and then citizenship.

However, during the 2001 federal election, former Prime Minister Howard exploited the politics of the MV Tampa to conflate migration with congestion on Australia’s roads and linked refugees to a welfare system under pressure.

By September 2005, the Australian Government had made citizenship harder to obtain. As Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows, Australia’s temporary migration intake outstripped its permanent intake, but fewer people were being offered the opportunity to remain here.

Up until COVID-19 hit, this remained the case. Overall migration continues to be high despite the political trickery of the Howard and now Morrison Government.

The number of permanent visas granted in 2019/2020 year was just over 140,000, 2018/19 was just over 160,000, all down from 183,000 two years previously. But this number masks the true nature of Australia’s migration number. On 31 March 2020, there were 2.17 million temporary visa holders in Australia. International students and skilled migrants report growing difficulties in applying for permanent residency while the waiting list for family reunification and partner visas is frustratingly long.

While the Liberal and National parties may believe they have satisfied their political concerns over congestion, ABS data shows the actual migration numbers, through the net overseas migration figures, have increased in order to (artificially, some might argue) prop up continued economic growth.

As former immigration department official Mr Abul Rizvi told the Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration during a 2020 public hearing, our pathways to permanency have become opaque, punitive and impossible to access.

In the meantime, over several decades and through a combination of specific visa classes, designated migration zones and sponsorship arrangements, Australia has sought to build the regions through migration. Unfortunately, evidence reveals that while these efforts can be effective in the short term, most new migrants move out of regional Australia when their visa conditions or residency status allows them to.

A failing system

It is hard to gauge whether or not Prime Minister Howard understood the long-term effects of his 2001 election campaign at the time. But, as Senator Kristina Keneally argued in her 2020 John Curtin Lecture, the legacy of that election lives with us today. Despite being well into their third term of Government, the Liberals and Nationals are still failing to invest in infrastructure, affordable housing, and public transport among others.

These failures significantly contribute to the difficulties related to retaining new migrants in regional Australia. The evidence reveals that most new migrants will leave regional Australia once the visa conditions that require them to stay are lifted. This is unsurprising. If there are no accompanying policies to make these areas more economically attractive, then new migrants will leave the area just as locals currently do – compulsion doesn’t work in the long run. In a 2019 paper for Australian Population Studies, Charles Darwin University scholars show that in 2015 37 per cent of migrants in the South Australian designated regional area intended to leave or had already left South Australia, while a further 37 per cent were undecided on their future movements.

This research underscores an Australian National University review of 1981-2016 ABS Census data by Raymer and Baffour for Population Research and Policy Review. It found that migrants in regional and remote areas have a very low chance of staying in the area. Up to 70 per cent will leave, and if they stay in Australia they go to Sydney or Melbourne. The data also shows the chances of migrants leaving regional areas is growing amongst newer migrant groups from China and India.

Migrants leave because they face the same challenges faced by all communities in regional and remote Australia; social isolation, limited essential service provision including health, education and employment, poor infrastructure, a lack of housing and a lack of adequate support and settlement services, as the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) outlined in a 2015 paper titled Migration: An Opportunity for Rural and Regional Australia.

FECCA’s paper reflects an earlier 2014 Department of Immigration review of the critical factors for successful regional retention of migrants. Those factors are related to employment, family connections and settlement, social connections and welcoming communities, the availability of services and infrastructure including appropriate and affordable housing, health care, education and settlement support.

Transience and permanence

A failure to invest in the regions hurts the ability of local communities to live good lives and presents a significant barrier to growing and strengthening regional Australia through migration. Indeed, it is creating communities of transience.

The evidence is out on the short-term impact of transient populations in regional Australia. However, some stakeholders have commented on the impacts of transience on communities over the long term, particularly around issues of social cohesion, as Settlement Services International pointed out in a 2020 submission to the Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration.

Temporary migrant workers are also vulnerable to worker exploitation in part due to their temporary status and the linking of their visa to their employer. For example, prior to entering the Senate, as a union official for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) I represented workers at 7-Eleven when it was revealed that many of their temporary migrant workers were subject to a systematic pattern of exploitation. These workers were paid between $8 and $10 an hour, and in one instance I met a young foreign student, who was making as little as $5 an hour. They came to Australia to get an education and improve their future, but were instead too scared to speak up, or simply not aware of their workplace rights. I can’t fathom the fear these workers would have felt, studying, struggling to make ends meet and feeling powerless in the face of employers determined to rip them off – because their bosses had all the power and they had little or none.

A number of media reports over the course of 2020 have revealed repeated incidences of sexual harassment, wage theft and other forms of exploitation temporary migrant workers have endured.

Anecdotally, regional Australians have told me they worry about the impact of transience on their communities. They want to welcome new Australians to their towns and see them establish themselves as valued members of their community – they want neighbours not strangers sent to work only to be sent home or who will leave the first chance they get.

Permanency, on the other hand, comes with significant benefits for both communities and migrants. Migration is demonstrably part of the Australian success story. As a nation, migrants have helped drive our economic growth and strengthened our egalitarian identity. For migrants, the opportunity to prosper, to develop a sense of belonging and live out more stable lives is key. For regional Australia and for the nation, migrants who have permanency are predisposed to make positive contributions to their communities, as the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) highlighted in a 2020 submission to the Temporary Migration Committee. This makes sense – if you feel secure in your settings, you’re likely to take the time to invest extrinsically in your community and surroundings.

Backing the regions

Strong arguments exist for refocusing on permanent migration to Australia. But in order to ensure effective long-lasting migration for regional Australia we must address the factors already outlined as critical for successful regional settlement.

Regional Australia is overflowing with creativity and energy, as Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese highlighted in his regional vision statement of September 2020. Indeed, regional Australia is full of talented and ambitious Australians. They work hard, contribute to our economy, and enrich the fabric of our national life.

However, Regional Australia needs to be backed in.

Regional and remote communities need governments to invest in new pathways for economic growth, training and skills, efficient and affordable telecommunications, roads, and public transport – not as afterthoughts or ill-conceived pork barrels but as genuine economic growth plans. As FECCA highlights, to encourage more migrants to regional Australia, we must ensure that adequate support and settlement services are available.

Regional communities need infrastructure, schools and health services, and economic opportunities through safe, secure work. In other words, we must make sure a good life in regional Australia is within reach of all. If we make the areas attractive for locals and others, then attracting migrants will be a breeze.

This is absolutely possible. Indeed, the Regional Australia Institute points to regional centres like Orange, Bendigo, Mt Gambier and Toowoomba as examples of success stories. We’ve done it before. In her Curtin Lecture, Senator Keneally described meeting growers in Shepparton who told her of Albanian migrants brought to our shores during the years of the Fraser Government. As Keneally recounted their words: “They came here. They built homes. They sent their kids to local schools. They put down roots. They brought others here. They were great workers and they built up our community. They became Australians. Can’t we just do that again.”

COVID-19 has seen a new interest in regional Australia. Seeking to get away from the frustrations and dangers of congestion, Australians have flocked to regional communities in ways not seen for decades. This could be a much-needed shot in the arm of human and financial capital – but only if we back this in with investment.

What do you need to live a good life?

Throughout our 130-year history Labor has focussed on answering the question, what do you need to live a good life? The shearers on strike in Barcaldine in 1891 were seeking proper pay and safe working conditions.

John Curtin, who found himself his family’s primary breadwinner at the age of 18, expanded the nation’s pension schemes and maternity allowances. The Light on the Hill speech of his great contemporary, Ben Chifley, reminds us that Labor seeks to bring “something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people”. Gough Whitlam abolished conscription and established the basis for equal pay. Bob Hawke was the Prime Minister of Medicare, and his minister Susan Ryan the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act. As Treasurer and then Prime Minister, Paul Keating’s stewardship of our superannuation program will leave an indelible mark on the lives of Australians for at least a century, if not more. More recently, Kevin Rudd introduced a universal paid parental leave scheme, Julia Gillard reformed education funding, and in the period of 2007 to 2013 they were responsible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the National Broadband Network.

Importantly, for decades Labor governments have had a strong focus on the economic and social livelihoods of regional Australia. Often, regional communities are poorer communities. They reflect the populations that have historically been integral to Labor’s working-class heritage and our electoral success – Ben Chifley after all was a train driver from Bathurst. These communities have been abandoned by successive Liberal and National Coalition governments, who seem focussed on cutting taxes for the wealthy, making it harder to find a safe and secure job and slashing support for the struggling – all problems that are worse when overlaid on regional areas.

As the Australian Labor Party looks for opportunities to grow its support, some in our movement display a narrow focus on the issues of the left and in organising in inner cities. But I believe there is a better way forward; a way that keeps the question of what we need to live a good life at the heart of all matters, that ensures we can continue to be a multicultural success and that brings a renewed focus to regional Australia.

We should invest in regional Australia. We should help permanent migrants move to the regions and make those regions a more viable option for permanent settlement. We should reopen pathways to permanent migration. We should make sure regional communities are cohesive and inclusive. We should ask ourselves the question, ‘what do you need to live a good life?’ over and over again, and continue to answer that question with a focus on affordable homes, secure jobs, social support and infrastructure, and the opportunity to build a future in regional Australia. We must seek new answers to this enduring question and never stop striving. Migration is a force for good. Not just for migrants like my parents, but for our regional communities and for our nation. Making it easier for migrants to secure a pathway to permanency, to settle in the regions and to build a good life will serve our nation well for generations.

This essay was originally published in ‘The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s future’, edited by Nick Dyrenfurth and Misha Zelinsky and available for purchase here.