Four-year welfare wait for migrants 'excessive'

·3-min read
Darren England/AAP PHOTOS

Migrants overwhelmingly benefit the Australian economy and community, but there are concerns not enough is being done to help them settle in.

New arrivals on permanent visas are forced to wait four years before they can access unemployment benefits, including JobSeeker and parenting payments.

Migrant settlement provider Multicultural Australia says the timeframe is excessive and should be reduced to six months.

The newly arrived resident waiting period was initially introduced in 1993 at six months but progressively increased until the current four-year interval was applied in 2019.

New arrivals to Australia often experience high levels of unemployment and underemployment as a result of skill recognition difficulties and cultural and linguistic barriers, Multicultural Australia wrote in a submission to a parliamentary committee into migration policies.

Chief executive Christine Castley urged a rethink on providing support to migrants as an investment in Australia's future economic prosperity.

Instead of a blanket four-year waiting period, Ms Castley recommended a gradual approach to support, starting with Medicare before allowing other payments.

"It's well established, the contribution that migrants make to Australia in terms of what they give back economically in taking up jobs and the small businesses they set up," she told the committee on Thursday.

A 2021 report into Australia's migration system by the National Skills Commission found skilled migrants contributed significantly to the economy and had higher than average workforce participation rates.

Australian Constructors Association chief executive Jon Davies said the skilled migration system should focus more on bringing in workers to improve productivity not plugging gaps in the labour market.

Productivity in the construction industry is lower than it was 30 years ago, Mr Davies told the committee, and increasing the volume of workers requires building ever-increasing quantities of infrastructure to cater to them.

Instead, governments must seek to attract in-demand white-collar workers to bring in new production-boosting capabilities, such as engineers with knowledge of pre-fabrication processes.

"There's a lot that's happening in other countries that we can learn from," he said.

"We need to actively seek out the best and brightest and positively incentivise them to come to Australia or we will lose the war on global talent."

Australia also risks losing out on qualified doctors, as counterproductive regional residency restrictions turn away prospective migrants, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Rural Chairman Michael Clements said.

Overseas graduates are required to practice in areas with doctor shortages for 10 years before winning their freedom, but the policy risks ceding highly-sought professionals to competing countries, like New Zealand and Canada.

"It's not helping us if we have a system that only meets rural needs by servitude," Dr Clements said.

He wants governments to wield a carrot to attract foreign doctors so they stay in communities long term, rather than a stick to force them where they don't want to go.

Dr Clements recommended offering packages to incentivise prospective applicants to go to rural communities, including providing housing, spousal employment, childcare, community welcoming and places of worship.

Ms Castley also recommended enhanced settlement services, such as English language training and orientation support, to help visa holders better integrate into Australian society.

She allayed fears migrants would take advantage of Australia's relatively generous welfare system, saying new arrivals don't have it in their "mental DNA" as they tend to come from countries where it is not an option.

"Often we find when we say to people 'You can access this support', they will say, 'Well, that's not for me - I'm here as an independent individual'," she said.