The federal government is planning to impose much stricter conditions on skilled visa holders, forcing people to spend far more time in regional centres.
The policy has been discussed since early this year, but has not yet been formally discussed by the cabinet.
A few weeks ago, when Australia's population hit 25 million much earlier than expected, Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge renewed the call. Major cities like Melbourne and Sydney are the preferred destination of migrants, with 87% settling there, but businesses in regional areas have been “crying out for more people”, he told the ABC.
Some of Mr Tudge's colleagues, notably backbencher Tony Abbott, have called instead for the annual migration rate to be reduced, claiming the present rate imposes too much pressure on city populations, straining infrastructure and housing availability.
Minister Tudge says the migration figures are looked at every year, and there is a greater need to spread new migrants across the country and “improve social cohesion”.
Australia has a handful of visas for those who want to work in a regional area, including the Skilled Regional (887) and the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (187). Last year, out of 184,000 migrants given permanent places, nearly 12,000 regional visas were granted.
The visas require the applicant to work in a regional area for a number of years, or to be sponsored by a regional employer. However, many migrants choose to leave the area once the conditions of the visa have been fulfilled, leaving the local employers searching for new talent.
A new policy, if adopted, would need to provide skilled migrants with incentives to settle in regional centres and the smaller cities. At present no details are available about what form such a policy would take.
The intention is to encourage skilled migrants to stay in regional centres long enough to “put down roots”, making a long term home for themselves.