A growing list of small rural and regional towns are reaping rewards from bringing migrant workers in to fill existing jobs gaps and even seemingly modest additions to a community have delivered significant results.
David Matthews is a grain grower from Rupanyup, Victoria, with a population a tick over 500, who came to Canberra today to show decision makers what a big difference small changes to the skills mix in rural towns.
His town’s migration journey is just beginning.
Mr Matthews employs Columbian vet Guillermo Sierra Cespedes as his farm manager. His wife Magda works in Rupanyup, where they bought their second house in town, which they rent to another migrant family.
Camilo Velasquez also works on Mr Matthews’ farm, and lives in Rupanyup with his wife Tatiana, who works for a poultry business in the area.
This small addition is changing the dynamic of the local economy. With access to livestock vet services, grain farmers are diversifying their enterprises with cattle - building resilience in local farms and creating opportunities for new service businesses.
We know they’re looking at this issue. We think it’s a no-brainer. Hopefully the government will too.
Rupanyup is a symbol of the policy push from the independent Regional Australia Institute think tank, which is arguing that modest policy changes can generate big dividends in the bush.
RAI is calling for location-based visa conditions for regional migrant workers, coupled with a regional policy rejig.
RAI chief executive Jack Archer launched the policy in Canberra today, speaking to community members from towns that have had success with their own local programs as well as Deputy PM and Nationals Leader Michael Michael McCormack and Labor’s agricultural spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon.
He called for rural and regional communities, businesses and governments to come together and make a case for new migrant workers to fill the shortfall of full-time workers in the bush.
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The government would respond to the community-lead approach by designating a town in need as a priority settlement locations to receive migrants, who would be required to stay in the region for at least five years.
RAI formed its policy by gathering success stories from regional initiatives like the one lead by farmer Stuart McAlpine from Buntine, in the Dalwallinu Shire in Western Australia, with a population of about 1300.
The population was declining and he formed a regional repopulation committee in 2010, winning support from the state government.
Strategies to attract migrants were implemented and the population has stabilised now, and in fact grown by 60 residents.
Mr Archer said RAI’s policy could, in the space of a few years, reverse the population decline of regional towns with an annual intake of 3000 migrants to smaller towns.
He said minimal funding for settlement services and a “small adjustment” to visa migration policy, is all that’s required.
“A town would only require modest resources to help towns get organised. We’re only talking a couple of million bucks,” Mr Archer said.
Mr McCormack welcomed RAI’s “wonderful report” and, borrowing a line from former Labor Regional Development Minister Simon Crean, said government could help communities “join the dots” between demand for workers and new migrants.
“Sydney is bursting at the seams,” Mr McCormack said.
There are businesses, there are factories, there are places of work, particularly in smaller towns, which are crying out for more people. Not just for more workers, but to fill the schools … to keep the critical mass up.”
Mr Fitzgibbon joined Mr McCormack in bipartisan support for the policy, praising its emphasis on community-lead migration intake.
“There is a role for government here… but it’s never a total solution to population decline,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“It’s a community’s willingness to embrace change that will take us to greater success.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Government could do more to support the policy, “but it no doubt fears it will send mixed messages on its tough on migration rhetoric”.
Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge said migrants who are sponsored for permanent residence on the basis of an intent to live and work in regional Australia don’t always stay long in the region once they have their permanent visa.
“This has been a key issue for discussion during my recent visits to regional areas over recent weeks. I am actively working with my parliamentary colleagues on positive solutions to help regional areas to meet labour demands,” Mr Tudge said.
RAI is hoping to see some action on its policy initiative soon.
“We’ve released this policy today so I think it’s too early to get something from government. But we’re incredibly pleased with the Deputy PM and a senior member of the Opposiiton being very supportive.
“We know they’re looking at this issue. We think it’s a no-brainer. Hopefully the government will too.”
- With Carly Werner