Immigration, for the most part, has improved our living standards and our social fabric. In particular, younger, skilled workers with a good grasp of English have taken little from the public purse. But making it easy for employers to hire foreign skilled workers does little to encourage workplaces to train workers already here. Temporary skilled worker programs without a path to permanent residency are especially problematic – a short-term fix that does little to sustain and grow our community.
About half of our permanent visas go to temporary visa holders who want to stay here and contribute. Yet we have made it harder for them to do that. In 2017, the Turnbull government cut off some paths to permanent residency and last year, the Morrison government capped at 160,000 the number of permanent visas granted each year. This does nothing to reduce migration. It just forces more people to rely on temporary visas for longer, despite the greater uncertainty. This includes people working in essential jobs like healthcare and childcare.
More than 2 million people were in Australia on temporary visas when Morrison closed the border. Many of them were encouraged to our shores to boost our economy, through work or study. And yet, as the good times have given way to bad, they have been told to go home if they cannot support themselves and for the most part denied government help. This is a stain on our national character.
Kristina Keneally is right to invite a rethink of our immigration program. We have this moment to take stock of who is here right now and what our next step might be. We should consider the make-up of our migration program – and what support we offer migrants to ensure they can contribute to our society. The coronavirus pandemic is also encouraging us to become more self-reliant – and now is the time to invest in training our labour force, particularly as the jobless rate explodes.
We also need to care for those who have found themselves among our number in this crisis. The government must provide greater support to those on temporary visas. We cannot turn our back on them. But we must also reconsider the temporary skilled worker visa scheme, particularly when it does not lead to permanent residency. It creates a situation that is unfair – for the sum of us.