The ABC’s You Ask, We Answer election project has received dozens of voter questions about immigration, with many concerned about how Australia can care for the hundreds of thousands of new migrants entering the country each year. In this article, the ABC’s You Ask, We Answer examines Shepparton as a model for successful settlement.
“Why don’t we cut immigration levels drastically until the country can accommodate a larger population?”
In March, the Coalition did announce that they would cut the permanent migration cap from 190,000 to 160,000 for the next four years as part of their new national population plan.
They also announced the introduction of two new regional visas, which would require skilled workers to live outside major cities for three years before they can apply for permanent residency.
Meanwhile, Labor is yet to announce anything specific with regards to dealing with issues of population growth.
Last month, the party pledged to lift the minimum pay rate for foreign workers on temporary skilled visas from $53,900 to $65,000 to prevent exploitation and encourage labour hire providers to hire Australians over foreign workers.
Temporary and long-stay visas the real issue
To date, neither major party has highlighted how it will address the high numbers of temporary visas.
Research professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Professor Andrew Markus, said people on temporary visas, such as overseas students, were the largest contributor to population growth — not those seeking permanent residency.
There are currently about 1.5 million people living in Australia on temporary visas.
“This notion of reducing [permanent migration] from 190,000 to 160,000 doesn’t really address the big issue that people are concerned about, which is a perceived over-crowding,” he said
Shepparton a model for successful settlement
Gurmeet Singh arrived in Australia in 1990.
With less than two dollars to his name, Mr Singh, who was a qualified mechanical engineer on a skilled migrant visa, started working on a local orchard in the Goulburn Valley in northern Victoria.
Fast forward almost thirty years and Mr Singh successfully owns and operates his own orchard, supplying fruit to Shepparton’s iconic fruit and vegetable cannery SPC.
He also played a key role in establishing a Sikh temple for the local Indian community in Shepparton. “What I was looking for when I came [to Australia] in the 1990s, now [my family and I] feel we’re on that destiny,” he said.
Refugee humanitarian entrants represent ten per cent of Shepparton’s population. With up to 60 languages other than English spoken in the home, Greater Shepparton city councillor and manager of the Ethnic Council of Shepparton and District, Chris Hazelman, said Shepparton’s demographic profile was “unique” for a provincial Australian town.
“We have four operating mosques, a Sikh temple … an Albanian mosque, which is actually the longest continuously operating mosque in regional Australia,” he said.
Mr Hazelman said the influx of migrants settling in Australia had a positive impact — not only on Shepparton’s economy, but on the town’s ethos as well. So why was this regional centre, with a population of more than 60,000, so attractive to migrants?
According to Cr Hazelman the answer is simple — water. “It’s provided the basis for intensive horticulture, dairy and food production industries across the Goulburn Valley,” he said. “The one thing [these industries] have in common is they need labour and they need investment.”
Professor Markus agreed. “People will go where there’s jobs, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
What could the major parties learn from Shepparton?
When it comes to immigration, the major parties’ focus is often on whether migrants are properly ‘assimilating’ to Australian culture and whether they are taking jobs away from ‘hard-working Australians’. “The traditional view of assimilation is that migrants have to be more like us,” Cr Hazelman said.
He argued this was not a productive way to measure how migrants contribute to the community.
“It is sometimes not well recognised how significant a success factor in settlement is,” he said.
Historically, regional Australia has struggled to attract people with the necessary skills that a region requires, and Australia’s economy largely relies on migrants being able to fill that gap in the workforce.
“People are prepared to work hard, and they work hard in industries that have struggled for labour. That’s a great benefit for regional industry,” Cr Hazelman said.
He therefore welcomed the Coalition’s plan to introduce new skilled worker visas. “If the Government is offering incentives and a skilled visa with potentially permanent residency at the end of that three years, it is not a bad incentive,” he said.
“As long as it doesn’t become a situation where we’re effectively creating a guest-worker class with the potential for permanent residency at the end.”
Cr Hazelman said more still needed to be done to protect migrants from exploitation. He would like to see both major parties investigate the feasibility of streamlining or changing tourist visas and temporary protection visas for skilled migrants working in the harvest labour sector.
“There are a number of people in the Goulburn Valley harvest areas that have come on tourist visas and then sought protection in this country, so they’re on temporary protection visas,” he said.
“If we could come up with a scheme whereby they were guaranteed they could come [to Australia] for a certain time, on an annual basis … we’d avoid a lot of the issues along the harvest trail regarding who’s [here] illegally and who’s not.”
Infrastructure investment key to getting more migrants to the regions
The Coalition has flagged a Melbourne to Shepparton fast rail link as part of its population plan. Cr Hazelman said this kind of investment was crucial if the Government wanted more migrants to settle in the regions. He used Bendigo, in central Victoria, as an example of an area that benefited from increased investments in infrastructure.
“The corridor from Bendigo down to Melbourne is alive with development,” he said.
“If you look at a fast rail between Shepparton and Melbourne … that opens up opportunities for Shepparton residents to travel to Melbourne for employment, for study.
“It opens up those things for the local residents, and it does the same thing in reverse.”
Political discourse around immigration damaging, local argues
Shepparton locals said the language used by politicians when discussing issues around immigration were jarring when compared to the kind of message Shepparton aims to send its new arrivals.
“My experience [in Shepparton], and what’s shown on the TV, is very different,” Mr Singh said. He said he always felt welcome and never afraid, but feared the same could not be said for his fellow migrants living in different parts of the country.
He described this current election campaign as the “nastiest” he’s ever witnessed. “In 1997, [Pauline Hanson] was saying ‘Australia is being swamped by Asians’, then the Muslims came and now she’s blaming them,” he said.
“Don’t help them if you can’t help, but don’t say anything bad [about them]. It’s hurting the people.” He also disagreed with the Coalition’s plan to cut the migration cap from 190,000 to 160,000, arguing that “if you take [away] the migrant society here in Shepparton … there’s nothing left”.
He said his message to the major parties was simple — be mindful of the way you speak about immigrants.
“We should not be scared of migration. It makes this country prosper,” he said.