THE Regional Australia Institute says there is a simple solution to stopping regional population decline and ending the long-term workforce shortage afflicting country towns across the nation – settling migrants in rural towns.
The institute’s new policy paper, The Missing Workers, outlines how small changes in the nation’s immigration policy would have huge economic benefits for regional Australia.
RAI CEO Jack Archer says regional migration projects scattered across Australia are paying huge dividends for the towns involved, with some small towns increasing their population by up to 15 percent.
“In many cases, these migration strategies have been locally-led, but carried out in isolation,” Mr Archer said.
“Now we need to connect the dots and help other rural towns capitalise on the opportunities migrant settlement programs can deliver. If we get this right, we can stabilise the population in these areas, fill jobs and get rural towns back on a decent economic trajectory.”
RAI estimate that settling 2000 to 3000 migrants a year, for five years, across regional Australia would put an end to population decline.
“To put that in to perspective, 2000 migrants represent about one percent of our annual migrant intake,” Mr Archer said.
“So we’re talking a mini-bus load of people each year to one of the many small rural towns that need people.”
Through its research, RAI identified a handful of communities who have instigated their own successful migration programs. The institute’s policy aims to takes the key ingredient from these towns and “scale it up” to a coordinated national approach.
Tamworth in NSW is one of the communities who have “got it right”.
Titus Elias arrived in Tamworth from India in 2013, and as a nurse in a city that’s had a difficult time securing enough health professionals to meet the regional demand, his contribution to the community is invaluable.
His wife Anju is a mid-wife, another occupation in high demand within the city. Mr Elias said a national rural migration policy was a “very good idea”.
“It helps to grow the community, the surrounding businesses in the area and the housing market,” he said.
“Most of the migrants that have arrived since 2013 have already bought houses and are looking to settle.”
North of Tamworth, the NSW border town of Mingoola has been rejuvenated by its new African migrant population.
- Read more: Getting migration beyond the city
In 2015, the community was devastated to learn its school was going to close due to falling student numbers, so the town began to look at a migrant settlement program.
Three years on and 29 African migrants call Mingoola home. The town’s school was saved and the new families are farming small plots of land made available by local farmers, while also working on larger farms.
Regional Victoria has a number of towns that have first-hand experience in the economic benefits a regional migration program can have – places such as Rupanyup, Nhill, Hamilton, Bendigo and Pyramid Hill (see story below).
Toowoomba, Nobby and Biolela in Queensland have also run successful migration initiatives, while it’s a similar story in South Australia’s Mount Gambier and Western Australia’s Dalwallinu.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack has thrown his weight behind the idea.
“When a skilled migrant comes to a regional area, they can find a job, they go on to make a significant social and – importantly – economic contribution to the area,” Mr McCormack said.
“Regional small businesses, farmers and people understand the vital economic contribution skilled migration can make to ensuring product moves from paddock to plate, as well as services such as health, education and many others, are available locally.”
Filipino families bring life to Pyramid Hill
MANY rural Victorian towns are battling steady population decline, but in Pyramid Hill the local Catholic school has grown substantially and for the first time in many years, new houses are being built.
The town has a population just over 550, and more than 100 of those are Filipino.
Pyramid Hill’s’ story of population decline would sound familiar to many rural towns across the country: a farming region where farms have amalgamated or been purchased by absentee farmers in recent decades, which has had a significant effect on the district’s population.
Between 2005 and 2010, the local abattoir and pet food factory both closed, stifling job opportunities in the town.
Loddon Shire mayor Cheryl McKinnon says the intake of migrants to Pyramid Hill was never seen as a project. It was a practical solution for a local business owner to address a labour shortage.
Around 10 years ago, piggery owner Tom Smith needed to fill job vacancies in his business, Kia-Ora Piggery, and found it difficult to attract local labour. Mr Smith had seen a company in Queensland head to the Philippines to secure reliable staff and decided to do the same. Initially, he employed four new staff members and brought them out to Pyramid Hill.
Fast-forward a decade, and his business now employs 24 Filipinos. More than 100 Filipino family members also live in town, with some filling roles at other local businesses.
Mr Smith’s business has nearly tripled in size since taking on overseas workers, and the fabric of the town has changed considerably.
New houses are being built in the region as the migrant families look to settle down. Local bank manager Mark Lacey saw a business opportunity and set up a Filipino grocery store to accommodate the needs of this town’s new residents.
The local Catholic school has grown, with 75 per cent of the students of Filipino heritage.
In 2015, the Pyramid Hill Fiesta was born as a way to foster inter-racial understanding and appreciation. The festival became a sharing of cultures and has been an annual event for the last three years, growing in participation each year.
Key changes could drive economic sustainability
THE Regional Australia Institute policy paper outlines a two-pronged approach for a successful national rural migration strategy.
RAI wants motivated rural communities to be established as “priority settlement areas”, once they’ve ticked a number of boxes by demonstrating their workforce need, housing availability, social integration capacity, and local service capability.
These priority settlements would be given preferential treatment and pushed to the top of the nation’s migration list.
RAI suggests various methods to help rural towns achieve this status, including more resources for locally-led migration initiatives, along with information packs and tool kits to help communities manage the social aspect of migration.
The institute also wants the government to create a matchmaking system, to foster links between rural employers and migrants, and support for communities to identify their workforce requirements.
“From our research, we’ve discovered these are the key ingredients to becoming a rural community that can successfully attract and retain migrant workers,” RAI CEO Jack Archer said.
The second part of the strategy is to make small policy changes, which would make it easier for migrants to settle in rural areas.
Australia’s immigration policy currently recognises a list of 30 occupations that are in demand in regional areas.
“That list of 30 doesn’t fit in to any one community, and job needs vary from town to town,” Mr Archer said.
“We want to see the immigration policy recognise local labour needs, and make them a priority in our visa system.”
RAI also recommends providing incentives to encourage migrants to settle in rural areas, such as set-up costs and increased opportunities for family reunion.
Communities could also be incentivised to achieve priority settlement status, through additional settlement services such as language classes that are often only found in metro areas or larger regional hubs.
Finally, tweaking the way migration settlement services are funded would remove a massive barrier to rural migration.
The current system ties service provider funding to catchment numbers and effectively discourages migrant movement.