21/05/2008 - 22:00

Migration changes positive

21/05/2008 - 22:00


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Four years ago, WA Business News started writing about the shortages of skilled labour that had emerged in economic hot spots such as engineering and mineral exploration.

Migration changes positive

Four years ago, WA Business News started writing about the shortages of skilled labour that had emerged in economic hot spots such as engineering and mineral exploration.

Since then, we have continued to write about a problem that has gone beyond skills shortages to a wider issue of labour shortages.

Policy makers have been slow in responding to what has become the single biggest issue facing the business sector in Western Australia, but it appears that the penny has finally dropped in Canberra.

Last week's federal budget included the biggest increases in the nation's skilled migration program since the 1940s.

Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Evans - a Western Australian who seems to have his ear to the ground - announced that an additional 31,000 skilled migrants would be added to the 2008-09 migration program.

This followed a one-off allocation of 6,000 extra skilled migration places in February.

Up to 133,500 skilled migrants will be able to gain permanent entry to Australian next year, on top of the 56,500 people who will be able to migrate under the expanded family stream.

In addition, more than 100,000 people are expected to come into Australia on temporary work visas, including the widely used - and in some cases abused - section 457 visas.

These changes have been applauded by a cross-section of business groups, which have been pushing for a more liberal immigration program for many years.

Senator Evans acknowledged that the changes would carry a cost.

The increase in the permanent migration program will cost an additional $1.4 billion over four years for settlement services and general government services like health and education.

However, he believes the new migrants will contribute an extra $2.9 billion over four years through income tax, GST and other taxes and charges.

This is based on research showing that more than 90 per cent of permanent skilled migrants are active in the jobs market.

We could add to this the extra revenue generated by businesses which should be able to recruit extra staff so they can pursue new commercial opportunities.

And we shouldn't ignore the extra utility flowing to the community at large from increased migration.

Labour shortages are much more than a business issue.

They have started to affect all Western Australians, in many ways.

Finding skilled workers such as electricians and plumbers to perform routine maintenance work around the home is challenging.

Hiring a reliable lawn mowing contractor isn't an easy task.

Cafes and restaurants are forced to limit their opening hours because they can't find the right workers, and many that do open often struggle with sub-standard staff.

Families wanting to build or renovate their home soon discover that local councils have lost planning and approvals staff.

Companies trying to get approval for exploration or mining projects face exactly the same problem.

Schools are battling to fill all of their teaching vacancies, and hospitals are constantly under pressure to find extra nurses and other staff.

All of these problems have arisen in metropolitan Perth but are much more acute in rural WA.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to sympathise with critics who suggest that increased migration will lead to a community backlash.

Unemployment has been at extraordinarily low levels for at least the past two years, ensuring there are plenty of work opportunities available.

One weak spot in the migration program has been the abuse of section 457 visas.

The federal government acknowledges this and has committed extra funding to improve processing and compliance.

The changes announced by the federal government are highly significant and are to be applauded, but Senator Evans has foreshadowed even bigger changes in future.

The government has established a working party comprising four of its most senior ministers to develop a long-term reform package and Senator Evans has predicted a "great national debate" over the next few years on migration policy.

When we reflect on the enormous contribution made by migrants to Australia's current prosperity, that debate is to be welcomed.


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