Australia

Exclusive: Business groups slam 'disappointing' skilled migration cuts

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EXCLUSIVE: Business groups have criticised the Turnbull government’s cuts to permanent migration.

Lobby groups representing more than 60,000 Australian businesses have criticised the Turnbull government’s cuts to skilled and family migration, which have seen the permanent intake fall to its lowest level in 10 years.

Australia took in 20,000 fewer permanent migrants than in the previous financial year, mostly thanks to a 12,000 drop in skilled visas and an 8,000 drop in family visas.

The Australian Industry Group, one of the nation’s leading business groups, said the cut was “disappointing”.

“We are strong supporters of the migration program and to see it drop so significantly below the 2017-18 intake ceiling is disappointing,” Ai Group chief Innes Willox told SBS News.

Mr Willox said it was to the government’s “credit” that skilled visas still made up the same percentage of the intake, at around 68 per cent.

But he encouraged the government to “get closer to reaching the ceiling” of 190,000 places this financial year. The government’s official cap is still set at 190,000, despite real numbers falling short this year.

“Skilled migrants generate the greatest economic benefits to the Australian community, through their direct contributions to our national employment and skills base,” Mr Willox said.

“Many also bring specialist attributes that provide even bigger benefits, by deepening our entrepreneurship, innovation and international linkages.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry blasted the cuts, arguing employers were paying the political price for the government's failure to keep up with infrastructure demands in growing cities. 

"This is a real crisis," the chamber's CEO James Pearson told SBS News. 

"This is a problem right now, particularly for regional businesses serving regional communities. Politicians have failed to plan properly for the population growth in Sydney and Melbourne and regional Australia is now paying the price because of this cutback in our skilled migration by stealth."

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton said the cut was achieved through the Coalition’s implementation of tougher vetting procedures, with new data-matching technologies helping to expose “fraudulent” applications.

"We’re not going to allow people in where there’s a fraudulent application, where there’s dodgy information being provided," Mr Dutton told reporters in Queensland on Friday.

“If you are bringing people in, like Labor did, that don't have the proper qualifications, that don't have the documentation that satisfies the examiners within my department, if they're worried about fraudulent documentation, those outcomes are not going to be productive for the economy.”

Back in February, treasurer Scott Morrison responded to calls from his colleague Tony Abbott to cut the migration cap by defending the economic benefits of the program.

"People who come as skilled migrants pay taxes," the treasurer said at the time. "They actually make a net contribution to the economy."

The Small Business Council of Australia said its members would be hurt, particularly in industries like retail and manufacturing.

“At the moment I’m hearing from my members it's getting harder and harder to get unskilled labour,” the council’s Peter Strong told SBS News.  

“That's from people in IGAs [independent grocers] and what have you, so this probably isn’t a good message. We need to make sure that our migrant intake continues to rise, sensibly … but we need migrants in the workforce,” he said.

Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese said the drop was a "good result".

"Of course it's a good result if there is more integrity in the system," he told Nine's Today program on Friday morning.

"This is, bear in mind, a drop of 20,000 on the government's own figures last year. They have been in government for five years. If they have toughened up the system which they themselves were in charge of, to ensure more integrity in the system, then, of course, that's a good thing."

Emma Campbell, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Communities, said the cuts to family visas would have an economic impact too. 

Skilled migrants often bring their partners or parents with them to Australia on a family visa. 

"We need a diverse migration system," Ms Campbell said. 

"Family reunification and family migration helps to contribute to a strong, socially cohesive Australia. It makes an important economic contribution." 

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