Why the Coalition's half-baked plan to push migrants into the regions cannot work
Alan Tudge, the minister for cities, urban infrastructure and population, on Tuesday repeated a suggestion that migrants might be forced to live in regions or cities other than Melbourne and Sydney. His proposal was first mooted in August and the lack of any further details or specifics in the latest iteration suggest the policy is more about talking than acting. That is just as well, because the driver of migration destination remains not government penalties or even incentives, but jobs.
I grew up in country South Australia and, like most of my school friends, as soon as I finished high school, I left. I finished university in the early 1990s at a time when the recession was so deep that in South Australia there were 48 unemployed for every job vacancy (currently there are four unemployed per vacancy). So, like many others of my age, I left the state. I lived in far north Queensland for a decade and then moved to Canberra after getting a job there in the public service.
My story is not all that unusual, and it goes to the problems governments both federal and state have with migration and population. I, like most people, moved to where there was work.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise that Tudge gave a speech this week that included a suggestion something needed to be done about migration to Sydney and Melbourne. Similarly it was not surprising that he suggested some vague measures to encourage or force migrants to move to regional areas or, at the very least, not Sydney or Melbourne. It was really just a repeat of what he said a couple months ago.
Politicians love to talk about the need to do something on migration and they love even more to suggest vague solutions. They are less enamoured, however, with acting or proposing specific policies.
Tudge’s suggestion for a geographic visa requirement for certain migrants was so meagrely spelled out that to call it half-baked would be to greatly overstate things.
His speech at the Menzies Research Centre was mostly just a gee-up for the Liberal party faithful in attendance than any great contribution to policy debate. Near the end he suggested that the government was “working on measures to have more new arrivals go to the smaller states and regions and require them to be there for at least a few years”.
Just how these measures would work was left unsaid.
In an interview on ABC News Breakfast, he told Virginia Trioli that “when somebody’s on a visa, then we can easily place conditions upon it. Now, we haven’t announced all the details exactly how we’re going to do that yet but it’s reasonably straightforward to do that.”
And yet when Trioli pressed him on how would you compel someone to stay in an area even if they were not able to get a job, Tudge replied that “we haven’t outlined all the exact details yet” and quickly moved on to talking about incentives currently in place that make it easier for migrants to gain a visa if they move to certain areas.
And that is where it will mostly sit. The talk of forcing migrants to do things plays well with the conservative base but mostly remains talk because not only is it quite difficult to enforce such a visa requirement, it also would achieve little, because people go where the demand for work is.
Consider internal migration. People move from state to state to chase work.
In 2012, Victoria barely had any net interstate migration, and yet Western Australia was getting record numbers of people moving to the state.
Now the situation is reversed – in the past 12 months, Western Australia saw 12,040 more people leave the state than move to it, while Victoria had just over 15,000 more people arrive than leave:
Why has this occurred? Well consider that, in 2012, there were as few as 1.4 unemployed per vacancy in Western Australia. When the mining boom ended, this rose quickly to over five per vacancy, and so the people left. Where did they go? Victoria was a big destination. And why there? Because in 2012 there was up to five unemployed per vacancy in Victoria but, as employment grew in the state, this has fallen to now being around 2.3:
Victoria and New South Wales are the easiest places to get work, so not surprisingly that is where Australians move.
NSW’s net interstate migration figures are always negative so it is best to look at the arrival figures alone, and here you can see quite clearly that since 2012 both it and Victoria have experienced a surge in arrivals that has echoed their improving economies:
And, not surprisingly, there has been a very similar story for international migration:
The supply of labour goes to where the demand for jobs is.
The greater capital city areas of Sydney and Melbourne are also where the highest level of full-time employment exists. Among the non-capital city areas, only WA with its high dependency on mining has a high percentage of people aged 25-54 working full-time:
And the problem with pushing people to the regions and non-Melbourne capital cities is that it can actually lead to unintentional consequences.
Demographer Prof Peter McDonald of the University of Melbourne recently noted in a paper this very question of “what would happen if international immigrants were diverted away from high-growth cities, as the government is proposing?”
He concluded that “ironically, reducing international migration to large cities would make it harder for the regions, including Adelaide and Hobart, to maintain their populations”. The reason being that this shift of workers away from the areas where there was high demand for labour to places where the fight for jobs was already tough would mean the “young people” in places like Adelaide and Hobart “would be drawn to Sydney and Melbourne, replacing the immigrants”.
If you want migrants to settle in certain places, jobs and infrastructure need to be in place. Without them, not only will international migrants be unlikely to move there, neither will Australians.
Politicians love to talk about the need to do something on migration and they love even more to suggest vague solutions.
Alan Tudge and the prime minister, Scott Morrison. Tudge said the Coalition hadn’t ‘outlined all the exact details yet’ when asked how to compel someone to stay in a regional area without a job.