Regional Initiatives - Budget 2011-12

By Mark Webster
11 May 2011

A number of initiatives encouraging migration to regional areas of Australia were announced as part of the Federal Budget on 10 May 2011. These include:

  • 16,000 places allocated to the RSMS (Regional Skilled Migration Scheme) for 2011-12 (an increase of 5,000 over likely 2010-11 numbers).
  • The introduction of Regional Migration Agreements.
  • Enhanced Regional Outreach Strategy

RSMS Visas

The RSMS or Regional Skilled Migration Scheme visa is a permanent visa which requires a job offer by an employer operating in a regional area. The criteria are far lower than other skilled migration schemes - an English score of 4.5 average is required in the IELTS test, and a diploma level education or equivalent work experience. As a comparison, under the 457 program, an English level of 5 minimum in each band in IELTS is required for trade occupations - and the 457 is only a temporary visa. For General Independent Migration, under the new points test to come into effect from 1 July 2011, it will be almost impossible to qualify without a score of 7 minimum in each band of IELTS.

Even though the criteria for RSMS are already very low, the Government announced last night that the criteria for RSMS will be streamlined even further for people already in Australia on 457 visas. There are grounds to be concerned that the RSMS visa is becoming the "soft option" for migration to Australia, with a high incidence of "non-genuine" applications occuring being lodged. Also, it is doubtful that regional employers really need people with low skill levels - many shortages would be for more highly skilled positions such as doctors.

In addition, just because an RSMS visa is granted does not mean that the migrant will stay with the employer or in a regional area. Whilst an RSMS visa can be cancelled if the sponsored employee does not stay with the employer for two years, RSMS visas are not monitored by the Department of Immigration after grant and there is little evidence that this power is actually being exercised by the Department of Immigration. The RSMS visa is a permanent visa with now work restrictions, so there is a strong temptation for visa holders to move back to the big city after grant.

One option which previously seemed to be effective in securing workers for regional areas were the regional concessions for the 457 visa which were abolished in September 2009. These concessions allowed sposnorship of workers in a wider range of occupations and at a lower salary level for positions in regional areas. The 457 visa is a much better way of ensuring that migrants do settle in a regional area as this visa is monitored by the Department of Immigration, does have work restrictions and is not a permanent visa. There is an established pathway from the 457 visa to permanent residence after the visa holder has worked with the employer for a certain period of time.

The Department of Immigration has increasingly adopted a 2-stage process for permanent residence in other migration streams - general skilled, partner and business migration to name a few. Reportedly, this leads to better immigration outcomes than the model where a permanent visa is granted initially, then possibly cancelled later due to non-compliance.

Regional Migration Agreements (RMAs)

There are few details on what Regional Migration Agreements will be, but it seems likely that they will be similar to labour agreements which allow streamlined processing of temporary and permanent employer sponsored visas. Negotiations for RMAs will open some time in 2012 after a consultation period.

It appears that RMAs will operate on a geographic basis and will lay out the total number of migrant workers by occupation and would be negotiated with employers, local and state governments and the unions. Employers could then sponsor under the terms of the RMA. Presumably the RMA would include concessions on occupation and possibly salary level or English language ability as compared to the usual sponsored pathways.

The main difference between an RMA and the previous 457 concessions would be that each RMA would need to be individually negotiated - as an indication, labour agreements currently take a minimum of 9 months to negotiate and much longer in many cases.

Regional Outreach Strategy

The Government announced that it will develop an enhanced Regional Engagement Strategy - this will involve the engagement of more Regional Outreach Officers by the Department of Immigration at a cost of $4.8 million over 4 years.

The stated purpose of this is to ensure that regional employers fully understand the migration programs are available to them to meet skills shortages. This should be relatively simple as there will really only 2 regional initiatives available to regional employers which are not available to employers in metropolitan areas - RSMS and Regional Migration Agreements.

It is hoped that part of the Regional Outreach Officers' role would be:

  • Monitoring the RSMS program which in its current form is open to widespread abuse
  • Assisting regional areas through the Regional Migration Agreement process
  • Assisting employers to make contact with potential migrants through the new Selection Model (see below)
For more information on other changes, please visit our Immigration Portfolio Budget 2011-12 Announcement page.

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