The recent history of skilled visa regulation is traced back to 1 September 2007 when the then Howard government essentially set up and encouraged a clear pathway from student visa to permanent residence. The result was a huge number of students doing minimalist 2 year courses in cooking and hairdressing (and other occupations) leading to permanent residence where many did not ultimately remain in those occupations. As a result there is still a shortage of skilled cooks and hair dressers (although the latter is more due to the low wages and irregular hours in that industry).  That policy was a failure and the Labour government in the years after 2007 changed the emphasis from supply based to demand based, ie encouraging employer nomination rather than independent skilled visas. Ironically this has been taken up by the first Immigration minister under the Abbot government, Mr Morrison.

Here is what he said in his speech on 21 October 2013:

The primary purpose of our immigration programme is economic, not social, in our view. Immigration is an economic policy, not a welfare policy…..

Traditionally, we have structured skilled migration around our permanent programme, made up of the points tested skilled migration stream and the demand driven employer sponsored stream. Around 68% of people migrating to Australia permanently come under the Permanent Skilled Program[2]and it is a critical focus of ours that we keep it that way, if not even higher. That is why the Coalition is committed to ensuring the proportion of skilled migrants does not fall below two thirds of our overall program.

More skilled people now arrive on a temporary visa and then having proven themselves and decided they’d like to stay in Australia, they find an employer who is willing to back them. These are exactly the productive migrants we want to encourage to stay. They have worked in our country. They have paid taxes from day one. They have improved their language skills through engagement in the workplace and in the community and off the clock and they are living and enjoying the Australian way of life they came to this country to enjoy, to experience, to be part of and to contribute to.

While the balance in the Skilled Migration Programme is shifting to employer sponsorship, non-sponsored migrants who have well developed human capital attributes are still important too of course. Particularly for the small business sector, where employers may not always be in a position to use those programs and to meet the obligations of those programs.

Independent skilled migration ensures that there is a pool of skilled workers available more generally to fill shortages in the economy where they develop and cannot be filled from within the Australian workforce.

The Coalition has always approached this issue from the starting point that wherever possible, jobs should be filled from within the Australian workforce. That is our clear commitment and that is our goal.

But where those skills are not available and that can be demonstrated, migration can and should play a vital role in supporting Australian business and creating Australian jobs. It provides the labour and importantly can facilitate the process of getting workers out to the sites where they are actually needed, whether in major projects particularly increasingly infrastructure projects or in other places around the country.

The current points test system was built on the bedrock of skilled migration reforms introduced under the Howard Government.[3] These reforms culminated in the major structural reforms announced in early 2007, by then-Minister Kevin Andrews, and included the rationalisation of skilled visa subclasses and a focus on stronger English language skills and relevant work experience and tertiary qualifications.

The skills and attributes that intending skilled migrants require, as specified in the points test, retain the focus on key attributes such as skilled employment experience and English language proficiency.

Australia’s permanent employer sponsored migration programme plays a pivotal role in ensuring that businesses right across the country, regardless of where their workplace is, can find skilled workers to fill genuine vacancies – and I stress genuine vacancies – where they emerge.

Barbara Davidson