Regional migration: Is this the answer to crowded cities?

A city street with people walking in every direction and an overlay of numbers

The Morrison Government has proposed that changes to our regional migration program are required to address population growth in our major cities. Whilst details of the proposed policy are still being developed, many are questioning how effective such a policy will be in practice.

The Government’s proposed regional migration policy

According to recent Department of Home Affairs figures, 87% of the 111,000 skilled migrants who arrived in the country this past financial year had permanently settled in Sydney or Melbourne.

The Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population Mr Alan Tudge recently stated that the challenge for Australia is that our population growth is not evenly distributed.

“The opportunity is to get a more even distribution of growth across the country to support the smaller states and regions, while taking pressure off Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland. One of the ways we can do this is through directing new migrants to smaller states or regions.  Matching the skills of new migrants with the skill shortages in rural and regional Australia will be key to the success of this approach.” (Alan Tudge, Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population).

Ideas that have been proposed to encourage migrants to settle in regional areas include:

  • a points based system to fast-track temporary workers who go to smaller cities or regions
  • a mandatory regional settlement plan for some migrants, including those in the skilled and family streams.
  • a visa condition that requires a regional visa holder to remain in a regional location up to 5 years (an increase from the current 2 year requirement)

The first two changes would be directed to those visas where there is no geographical requirement for the newly arrived migrant.

Mr Tudge has stated that it is not the Government’s intention to adversely affect employer sponsored visas as the Government does not want to jeopardise the growth of those sponsoring businesses. However, the Government is yet to explain in detail how these ideas will be implemented.

Mr Tudge has also identified that to address the congestion issue in our cities, more investment in our infrastructure is required to better connect our cities along with a better population framework.

Are these changes viable?

Experts have raised doubts about how effective plans to encourage regional migration would be in practice to address the congestion issues in our capital cities.

In theory, plans that encourage regional migration would provide a boost to our regional economies. However, Cities Research Institute’s Dr Tony Matthews has questioned whether this would be legally viable.

“You have to question immediately whether the economics of regional cities offer the employment opportunities those skilled migrants would need to access. You would have to try match up these skill shortages in specific regional cities to try and ensure there was continuity and connection between these skills. If it’s needed, but if you can’t match it, that seems counter-productive.” (Dr Tony Matthews, Cities Research Institute).

In our current visa program structure, there are already benefits connected with regional visas such as a wider occupation list and additional points for applicants that are nominated by a state or territory government to live and work in a regional area. However, between 2006 – 2016, the majority of arrivals have settled in Sydney or Melbourne and only 3.2% moved to regional NSW and 1.9% moved to regional Victoria.

Our migration program focuses predominantly on high-educated, high-skilled individuals and these are the people who want to be working in the sectors that are in the cities. In the main, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth drive the Australian economy and they continue to bring in people, whereas regional Australia continues to lose young people and therefore continues to age.

The challenge for any regional migration policy is creating the job opportunities required to support an increase in migrant population.

The wait for more detail

Whilst we await further detail on the Government’s policy, many are concerned with how such a policy can be implemented and whether it will have a real impact on the congestion issues in our major cities. It is clear that our cities are facing significant pressure and action needs to be taken. The Government are aware that in addition to looking at our population migration policies, there are baseline issues in infrastructure, jobs and housing that need to be addressed.

Mr Tudge has recognised that there are benefits of a larger, more diverse population. It leads to a larger economy, greater opportunities for Australians and enables us to easily achieve economies of scale in public and private services. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring Australia can continue to obtain the benefits of a culturally diverse workforce in our cities with the need for a more even distribution of our population growth in Australia.


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