The chief economist of the Regional Australia Institute says the federal government needs to ensure enough overseas migrant populations are flowing into non-metropolitan areas.
- The 2022 population statement projects fewer than 17 per cent of net overseas migration will flow to regions this year
- The Regional Australia Institute has renewed calls for a national population plan to ensure regional Australia grows at pace with capital cities
- Recent data from the RAI shows job vacancies peaked at 96,000 in the regions in late 2022
Last week’s release of the federal government’s 2022 population statement projected that fewer than 17 per cent of net overseas migration would flow to regional Australia in the coming year, whereas the RAI believes the government should be setting a target of 40 per cent.
The independent think-tank says the dispersal of immigrants into the regions will bring greater productivity, help fill significant job shortages, boost infrastructure as well as buffer some areas from population decline.
The organisation’s chief economist Kim Houghton said the COVID-19 pandemic had shown how the country could be negatively affected by a lack of international workers.
“The worker aspect is one that has become very stark over the last couple of years,” Dr Houghton said.
“That flow of people — whether they are backpackers or migrants — has become really important to regional communities.
“It’s not always visible and that is why it took some of us by surprise.”
He said overseas migrant workers would still be the single biggest driver of population growth over the next 10 years.
“It has been like that for a long time — we’re not making babies locally, so that flow-on has a real impact.”
Councils also lobbying
In Victoria, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) forecasts suggest about 7,000 people will migrate to regional Victoria each year for the next four years, compared to 70,000 to Melbourne.
It is predicted that by 2032-33, without net overseas migration, regional Victoria’s population would be in decline due to reduced birth rates.
Victoria’s west is well-acquainted with the challenges of attracting enough people to live and work locally.
A report released last year centred on the Northern Grampians, Pyrenees and Ararat areas found future population growth would be heavily reliant on migration.
Like the RAI, the report said a lack of support for skilled migrants was an obstacle to maximising the benefits of this.
Northern Grampians Shire mayor Kevin Erwin said Australia’s current migration policy focused on highly skilled migration, which was only sometimes what the regions need.
The report also found that backpacker visas excluded tourism and hospitality, a vital part of the local workforce.
“We have certainly tried to get those two [sectors] onto the 80-day 417 backpacker visas, and the Halls Gap and Great Western postcodes need to be included as well,” Mr Erwin said.
“We’ve sent a letter off to Home Affairs trying to get that change.”
The report also highlighted the lack of housing and childcare in regional areas as obstacles to greater overseas migration.
Recent data shows country Australia reached a record 96,000 job vacancies in late 2022.
Last year, the RAI submitted suggested key policy changes to the federal government.
These included developing mechanisms to raise awareness of regional Australia among migrants in capital cities; supporting local settlement assistance to newly arrived migrants in regional areas; and setting a population target for regional Australia of 11 million by 2032.
To address skills shortages, 12 areas of regional Australia have also entered into Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs) with the federal government.
The decision on whether to initiate DAMAs rests with local councils, chambers of commerce or Regional Development Australia offices.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said backpackers holding 417 visas could already choose to work in any industry they desired,
“[They] can count tourism hospitality and work carried out from June 2,2 2021 in northern and very remote areas of Australia as specified work” to apply for a second or third visa, the spokesperson said.
“The department is enhancing its outreach and engagement capability to support delivery of its migration program and support businesses to meet their migration needs.”