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Business despairs at sluggish Australian immigration flow, calls for visa overhaul

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced this week a raft of changes to speed up availability of offshore workers, including watering down the need for employers to provide they cannot find local hires, and creating a “Green list” of jobs that can lead to permanent residence.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced in the March budget that Australia’s permanent migration ceiling will be 160,000 in 2022-23, rejecting calls from the business community and the NSW bureaucracy for a period of “catch-up”.

“We’re not even going to get close to that cap in the short term because we are seeking to rebuild the program, re-open the lines of people being able to come to Australia,” Mr Morrison said in response to questions from AFR Weekend on Friday as he campaigned in the marginal eastern Melbourne suburban seat of Chisholm.

“But one of the things you always get from our policy on immigration… it will be balanced.

“Balancing up the need to ensure that we maintain the quality of life and ensure not too much pressure on the services and systems and infrastructure in our cities, but also of meeting the real population needs of states like Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and getting people out to our regions.”

International border movements have rebounded dramatically this year after nearly two years of pandemic shutdowns, but official data suggests flows of well-educated, experienced foreigners are lagging.

The number of overseas visitors arriving for long-term stays fell by 11,040 people in March to 39,460, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics data published on Thursday. At the same time, the number of overseas visitors permanently departing Australia jumped 28 per cent in March, supporting those who say two years of hard-line border rules have spurred many long-term expatriates to leave.

Over the past decade, excluding 2021, permanent long-term visitor numbers averaged 162,000 during the first three months of the calendar year, and peaked at 219,000 in 2019. This year the number is 126,000.

According to figures provided by Mr Hawke’s office, since November through to May 8, the government granted 87,000 student visas and 49,000 “temporary skilled and other worker” visas.

But in that time, the total number of arrivals with temporary skilled and other worker visas, a group that includes those whose paperwork was signed before November, is 86,500.

“Businesses are reporting significant barriers to getting the skilled workforce they need to operate at full capacity,” said Andrew McKellar, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“Protracted processing times, excessive costs, confusing compliance measures and compulsory labor market testing are making it prohibitively difficult for many employers to employ skilled staff.”

Challenged on how he would address the issue, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said skilled migration “will continue to play a role, particularly in terms of filling the shortages that are there in the short term”.

But he said he has told the business community there is a range of professions where employers have relied on “short-term responses” to a long-standing problem.

“Australia has needed engineers, has needed chefs, across a range of sectors for a long period of long time,” he said.

“We should be looking to attract the best and brightest to Australia. That will be consistent with the great migration story here in Australia.“

The Australian Financial Review revealed in October that NSW government advice to new Premier Dominic Perrottet was for the country to conduct an ambitious “post-World War II” approach to skilled migration by bringing in as many as 2 million people over five years.

Migration collapsed to a trickle after states slammed shut international borders in March 2020. That has helped push the unemployment rate close to its lowest level in half a century, while exacerbating skills shortages that threaten to stifle productivity, economic growth, and provision of basic services such as hospital and aged care.

“To make the skilled migration system more accessible and responsible, we need to open employer sponsored migration up to all skilled occupations,” Mr McKellar said.

“As the global race to attract skilled migrants heats up, we cannot risk getting left behind. With efficient and cost-effective visa settings we can attract and retain talent which will be crucial to strengthening our economic recovery in the years ahead.”

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