Skilled migration strategy falls victim to red tape busters

Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Senator Michaelia Cash has kicked off a review of 457 visas, but the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency won’t be playing a role. Stefan Postles/AAP

Although few working Australians would be familiar with the work of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, all of us depend on it to some degree.

In a shortsighted move, the government has decided to abolish the agency, and the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency Repeal Bill is currently before the Senate.

What does the agency do?

The AWPA identifies skill shortages in the domestic economy, and those it deems too severe to be met by the current domestic workforce are then added to the Skilled Occupation List. An overseas worker can apply for permanent residency in Australia, so long as they possess the necessary skills. For other skill shortages, AWPA advocates greater domestic training and investment, thereby encouraging the government to invest in developing the local workforce.

Other major contributions of AWPA include its development of a series of comprehensive national workforce development strategies, its initiation of key sectoral skills reports which uncover the needs of industries including retail, engineering and manufacturing, and its role in directing attention towards not just skills development but the better use of skills in the workplace. Each of these initiatives would not have occurred without AWPA’s leadership.

Not every decision of AWPA (and its predecessor Skills Australia) has been universally popular. Indeed, not every decision has been right. But the agency provides an invaluable, independent voice that all federal governments can learn from.

Unfortunately the government has shut its eyes to AWPA’s important role. The AWPA repeal bill will see the activities of AWPA subsumed into the Department of Industry. The government says this will be more efficient and reduce red tape.

But this is completely out of step with what other countries are doing in this area.

Small government

Even in the United Kingdom, AWPA’s equivalent, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has escaped the deregulatory zeal of the conservative Cameron government and its so called “Red Tape Challenge”.

Britain’s MAC has played a critical role in conducting independent labour market analysis. It has earned a reputation for careful analysis of the data and evidence on skill shortages that has helped to win support from both the government and the public. Of course there are stakeholders who disagree with some of the MAC’s recommendations, but the committee’s willingness to consider both top-down labour market indicators and bottom-up evidence from employers has been critical to its success.

Even if the MAC deems there to be a skill shortage, it does not always recommend an increased intake of migrant workers. Its findings can trigger government actions to reduce shortages in the future by initiating a formal review of the training system that trains British workers for the occupation in question.

Australia could learn from the British approach to identifying and meeting domestic skill shortages. Instead of abolishing the one, independent, federal agency with expertise in this area, the government should be increasing its investment in AWPA. This agency is critical to the integrity of Australia’s permanent migration program and its role should be expanded (as in the UK) to include the temporary migration program, namely the subclass 457 visa.

An independent view on 457 visas

In addition to compiling the Skilled Occupation List, AWPA should also put together the list of occupations for which the subclass 457 visa can be used. This would most definitely improve the efficacy of Australia’s temporary labour migration program.

With youth unemployment on the rise and with the recent federal budget reducing payments for the unemployed, it is essential we provide employment opportunities and career pathways for Australians.

While it might be simpler, quicker and easier to plug many skill shortages with temporary or permanent migrant workers, a better, more visionary response would be to invest in the training of the domestic workforce where possible. The AWPA has provided a critical independent voice in this regard.

The decision to abolish AWPA is not any reflection of the quality and importance of the work it has been doing. Instead, it is a byproduct of the Abbott government’s ideological preoccupation with deregulating and reducing the size of government. The real casualty of this shortsighted decision will be Australian jobs and the skills development of the domestic workforce.