The federal government is planning to further turbocharge immigration with an overhauled visa process for skilled workers that will take days, not months.
Under the planned migration overhaul, details of which were leaked to The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday, businesses will be able to bring in foreign skilled workers on as little as $120,000 in a fast-tracked visa process.
The changes are part of the government’s soon-to-be-released migration review, commissioned by Labor to address what it describes as a “fundamentally broken” system.
It comes after Australia welcomed a record-breaking 400,000 migrants last financial year, driven by a surge in international students returning after Covid border closures, despite growing pressure on the housing market.
In addition to a stripping back regulations to make it easier for firms to bring in high-wage workers — with the yet-to-be-announced threshold likely to be from $120,000 and potentially as high as $150,000 — Labor’s migration overhaul will also allow employers to bring in low-paid care sector workers earning less than $70,000 under “extensive regulation and union oversight”, The Australian Financial Review reports.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil appeared on Seven’s Sunrise on Wednesday, where she was asked by host Nat Barr, “This will obviously help businesses fill the shortage of skilled workers — I guess the problem here is, where are they going to live?”
Ms O’Neil blamed the former government for leaving a “migration system which was fundamentally broken”.
“It was slow, expensive, impossible to use, not serving Australians and not serving our economy,” she said.
“When we first arrived in office … literally the system was broken, and the reforms you’re talking about, there are some policies the government will release later this year. What I want Australians to understand is this is actually not about how many people come to Australia, it’s about who. It’s the first time our government in a long time has really thought about the question of why we would bring people to Australia through the migration system, what are the big national challenges we are trying to solve, and design a system around those things.”
Ms O’Neil claimed that “the overall effect of these changes will not be to increase migration in Australia, in fact the effect of the changes will be to reduce the size of the system a bit”.
“But I say again, the point of this review and this policy change is not really about how many, it’s about who and making sure we are getting the best out of the system for our country,” she said.
MacroBusiness co-founder Leith van Onselen, who has pointed the finger at Australia’s unprecedented immigration intake as the cause of the housing crisis, said he actually supported the policy “provided the salary threshold is set at a high level” such as $120,000 or above.
“The median full-time wage in Australia is currently around $85,000, so a threshold set at $120,000 or above would attract genuinely skilled migrants who pay high levels of taxes,” he said.
“Ultimately, the best guide to skills is wage levels, not regulations or skilled occupation lists, which are easily circumvented and inefficient. The government should set a high wage threshold above the full-time median to ensure that the migration system attracts genuinely skilled workers who pay high levels of income taxes.”
AMP Capital chief economist Dr Shane Oliver has also called for lower immigration to address housing affordability.
“The role of high immigration levels (now about 500,000 per annum) can’t be ignored,” he said in a note on Wednesday.
“On our estimates it needs to be cut back to nearer 200,000 people a year to better line up with building industry capacity and to reduce the chronic housing supply shortfall.”
Appearing on Sunrise, Shadow Finance Minister Jane Hume criticised the time taken to complete the migration review, saying it was “something business have been calling” for since Labor came to government last year.
“What I would say is, where is the infrastructure that is going to support this migration?” she said.
“We already know that around 500,000 migrants have come to Australia in the last 12 months alone in the middle of a housing crisis, we have crumbling infrastructure that needs upgrading … we need to be able to underpin that new migration. The good-quality migration program that has underpinned Australia‘s economic growth and prosperity for decades. If this is a well managed migration program that is terrific, it will add to productivity and economic growth, if it’s not it will make it worse.”
Barr again asked Ms O’Neil, “Where is everyone going to live? That is a big issue in this country.”
The Minister argued that Australia’s population today was “actually lower than it would have been had we not shut the borders during Covid”.
“That being said, I completely agree we’ve got really serious problems with housing in our country … and every time we try to do something about it Jane and her colleagues team up with other people and try to stop us,” she said.
Labor’s signature $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) was sensationally delayed earlier this year after the Greens teamed up with the Coalition to push back consideration on the legislation until October, claiming it did not go far enough.
The Albanese government last week struck a deal with the Greens to break the Senate standoff, with Housing Minister Julie Collins saying the HAFF getting through would mean “an additional 30,000 social and affordable rental homes in the first five years of the fund”.
Speaking on Sunrise, Ms Hume argued Labor’s housing fund didn’t address the migration issue.
“These migrants don’t want social housing, they want new housing,” she said.
Ms O’Neil hit back, “The really important thing here is we’re trying to do something about housing, we want to build more housing and Jane and her colleagues are trying to stop us from doing that.”
In April, Ms O’Neil told the National Press Club that Australia “faces genuine and significant challenges providing safe affordable housing” but insisted “these problems are not caused by migrants”.