CEO Voice feature from AIM/West Business: Paul Blackburne, MD Blackburne.

Federal Government’s immigration review must deliver a more streamlined system, WA business leaders say

Source: The West Australian

A simpler, more streamlined immigration system must emerge from a wide-ranging Federal Government review, WA business leaders say, as the State battles a long-running skills crisis that shows little sign of abating.

The review announced by Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil on Monday comes just days after the Reserve Bank of Australia’s most recent forecasts for unemployment to stay at decades-low levels for at least the next two years — and that international student numbers would not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.

Ms O’Neil said the “broken” and “cumbersome” system was not getting the people into Australia the country needed, while other countries like Canada were “rolling out the red carpet” through a more efficient system.

There are more than 816,000 migration and temporary visa applications still waiting to be processed. International student numbers are also well down on pre-pandemic levels amid concerns that the high price of plane tickets may also be a barrier to some returning to Australia, let alone to Perth.

The review aims to clearly define the purpose, structure and objectives of the national migration system to make it more sustainable through future decades.

Unemployment — currently at 3.1 per cent in WA and 3.5 per cent nationally — is forecast to increase to only 4.3 per cent by the end of 2024, a level last seen about 15 years ago.

Crown Perth chair John Van Der Wielen said general migration needed to be separated from economic migration — the two had been conflated for too long and made the system bureaucratic.

“We make it so difficult for someone to migrate to this country,” he said.

“If you’ve got a skill we need and you’re prepared to move your whole family here and commit to coming to Australia, why are we making it so difficult?”

Committee for Economic Development of Australia WA chair Diane Smith-Gander said a more demand-driven approach to skilled migration was needed. The number of temporary skilled visa holders in WA was now less than one-third of what it was at height of the mining boom.

“We need to have a coherent and globally competitive migration system. We’re competing with Canada as for example and it takes two weeks to get a visa to go to Canada,” she said.

Ms Smith-Gander said the chopping and changing of strategy made the system unreliable. In 25 years, the skilled migration system had been reviewed more than 40 times.

“It’s absolutely critical that we do a strategy and then stick with it,” she said. “We need to streamline and we need to accelerate.”

Restaurateur George Kailis, who owns four venues across Perth, said he would not consider opening more without more staff available. Chefs particularly were in short supply.

“In hospitality, we’re in a bit of a crisis situation,” he said.

“We just don’t have enough people in the marketplace to service the needs of customers. Being able to to access the international workforce easily would be hugely beneficial.”

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable said though foreign workers were a small but critical component of the mining industry, their importance was more pronounced as skills and labour shortages persisted.

“Innovative solutions and options to expand skilled migration pathways to lower skilled roles ordinarily not accommodated would be a welcome response to the skills crisis,” she said, adding that more transparency of visa processing and better processing times and removing the occupation lists were key priorities from the review.

Northern Star chief executive Stuart Tonkin said the migration system must enhance economic growth, “not put a brake on it”.

“Key for us is a migration system that can enable the retention of skills through pathways to permanent residency,” he said.

“Increasing the level of migration into Australia will not diminish wages as perception suggests.”

Mineral Resources managing director Chris Ellison welcomed the review to “get the system right”.

“We’re encouraging every Australian to apply for one of our great jobs, but we know that the skills crisis is acute across the country, and sensible migration will be key to ensuring we can keep building Australia’s long-term prosperity,” he said.

Construction boss Paul Blackburne said Australia had been held back too long by its “outdated, inflexible and burdensome” immigration regime.

“It’s scandalous that there are so many outstanding people that may be willing to come to Australia to help meet the skills shortfall and little effort to date has been made to attract the people we need,” the executive chair of Blackburne said.

“We need more people and we need them urgently.”

Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist Aaron Morey said the skills crunch was still a major concern for many businesses across the State.

“International students won’t be the panacea, but in a tight labour market, every little bit helps,” he said in response to the RBA’s forecasts.

Mr Morey said tourism, hospitality, retail and community services businesses would continue to feel the pinch the longer that students were not available.

Australian Hotels Association WA chief executive Bradley Woods said despite the dire labour shortages, the process for securing skilled workers was “cumbersome, time consuming and expensive”.

“Sensible improvements to our migration system could create pathways for critically needed skilled staff, which in turn gives opportunities for businesses to stay open and trade more, providing opportunities to Australian workers,” he said.

The review will be led by former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, labour migration legal expert Joanna Howe and former Skilled Migration Ministerial Advisory Council member John Azarias.