Does Australia Still Need a Regional Migration Policy?

September 24, 2021
Myer Lipschitz

In 2019 Australia announced a change to immigration policy aimed at greater emphasis upon regional visas and designed an immigration policy aimed at encouraging regional migration. We did this to reduce the stress upon the major cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane that had traditionally absorbed 70% of the migrants immigrating to Australia. With the advent of Covid 19 Australians have in increasing numbers chosen to leave the major cities to enjoy the lifestyle and cheaper property prices of regional Australia, whilst working remotely, prompting me to wonder whether there is a need for an immigration policy that is focused on encouraging regional migration and whether it’s not going to be counter-productive because the greatest skill shortages will probably be felt in the major cities.

Regional Australia for visa purposes is everywhere except for Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and postal codes are used to define these areas.

At the time of introducing a regional based immigration policy it made sense. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (Metropolitan Australia) were facing increased congestion, lack of amenities and pressure upon schools, hospitals and general infrastructure. The regions were suffering from declining populations and growing skill shortages.

To address these problems the government introduced an immigration policy that made it easier to qualify for a visa that would allow one to live in regional Australia and more difficult to migrate to Metropolitan Australia by making a distinction between a small number of occupations that were suitable for Metropolitan Australia and a much larger number suitable for regional Australia.

If you were in one of the occupations on the (lengthy) regional list you could qualify for one of these regional visas if either an employer agreed to sponsor you or a state government acted as your sponsor.

There is a list of occupations suitable for employer sponsored Metropolitan visas, a list for independent applicants who don’t need sponsorship, a list of occupations suitable for state sponsored regional visas and one for state-sponsored Metropolitan areas as well as employer sponsored regional visas. The lists of occupations are more confusing than my wife’s shopping list (although she insists her shopping list is completely logical). I suspect she had a hand in drafting the visa occupation lists 🙂

State governments bought into the concept of sponsoring more occupations for regional Australia, particularly the less populated states because a regional visa would restrict you to living in regional Australia and they wouldn’t “lose” you to Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane (at least for a period of three years).

There was often very little logic behind which occupation fell on which list. For example, a stockbroking dealer would have to have an employer sponsoring them in regional Australia which is bizarre because the vast majority of jobs for stockbroking dealers would be in Sydney. So too for senior management occupations such as a sales and marketing manager or human resources manager, these occupations were not suitable for employer sponsored residence visas if the position of employment is in Metropolitan Australia notwithstanding the fact that some of the largest employers with the greatest need for senior managers would be in Metropolitan Australia.

Prior to the implementation of the emphasis upon migration to regional Australia we had a regional visa policy, it’s just that the November 2019 changes provided and added impetus to encouraging regional migration.

With the advent of coronavirus and the closure in Australia’s borders since February 2020 those who were granted provisional regional visas haven’t been able to enter Australia for the past 18 months and I suspect that there is a large number of applicants overseas on regional visas that will be migrating to regional Australia once the borders open early next year.

It’s difficult to get an accurate idea as to how many Australians are leaving Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to move to regional Australia and although the Australian Bureau of Statistics does record statistics regarding migration trends it tends to record people living in capital cities of each state which is a different definition of “regional” as used in immigration policy terms. Furthermore I haven’t seen any statistics produced since coronavirus and at present the most reliable yardstick to measure Australian migration trends would be the rates of increase of property prices in regional versus Metropolitan Australia.

Whilst it might be true just because somebody moves to regional Australia doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be working for an employer in regional Australia as it’s becoming increasingly popular to work remotely whilst living in regional Australia but employed by an employer situated in Metropolitan Australia.

The move from Metropolitan to regional Australia on the part of many Australians will no doubt create more economic activity thus creating jobs for migrants on regional visas but I suspect that it may be the metropolitan areas suffering the greatest skill shortages when Australia emerges from the cocoon of self-imposed travel restrictions early next year.

The skill shortages in Australia are profound and occur in a vast array of industries such as agriculture, hospitality, mining, IT, education and healthcare to name a few.

As one of our consultants eloquently put it, at the end of the day migrants will settle where the jobs are and I think that at some point in the future the Federal and State governments will have to consider creating more opportunities for a greater number of occupations to immigrate to Metropolitan Australia because internal migration (Australians moving from Metropolitan to regional areas) will largely account for regional population growth on their own without needing to encourage immigrants to settle in regional areas by granting regional visas.

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