Migrant intake to go outback?

Eugenie Joseph

22 March 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

It seems the federal government has finally decided to ‘do something’ about growing population pressures on Sydney and Melbourne.

Under a new immigration policy, the government plans to: cap permanent migration at 160,000 annually; require more skilled migrants to live in regional Australia for at least three years; and offer international students ‘incentives’ to go to universities in regional areas.

However, will any of this stem the rate of overseas migration to Sydney and Melbourne, which accounts for over 70% of the two cities’ combined population growth?

Only time will tell if the new policy has any noticeable impact. However, there are already serious grounds for doubt.

The idea that we can somehow evenly distribute migrants across Australia may sound nice in theory — but could prove impossible in practice for several reasons.

First, much of the demand for skilled labour is concentrated in the major cities — and there is little that governments can do about it, at least not in the short-term. Governments cannot magically transfer thousands of jobs from Sydney and Melbourne to Tamworth and Bendigo.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that a regional settlement policy will have lasting effects. Many migrants demonstrate a strong preference for the major cities; often because they are accustomed to large cities, or their families and compatriots are based there. Even if migrants are forced to live elsewhere for a certain number of years, presumably they could still choose to settle in Sydney or Melbourne once they obtain permanent residency

And thirdly, the government has flagged a lower cap on the number of permanent migrants only. Temporary migration to Australia remains largely uncapped — and accounts for the majority of migrants who gravitate to the major cities.

This includes international students, who represent a lucrative income stream for Australian universities. Regardless of government efforts to entice students to regional Australia, it is highly doubtful that universities in Melbourne and Sydney would voluntarily cap their intakes of international students.

Of course, it is right for the government not to ignore community concerns about congestion in Australia’s two largest cities.

However, trying to manipulate the geographic distribution of migrants could merely prove the limitations of central planning by governments.

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