Pacific Australia Labour Mobility

Monday, 06 March 2023

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (18:48): It's a pleasure to rise and support the member for Riverina's fine motion in support of the PALM scheme, an initiative of the coalition government. It succeeded in bringing so many workers from our Pacific family here to Australia to be able to earn a great Australian wage and, of course, have those remittances go back to their families and communities all across the Pacific. It ensures that they have a much higher GDP than they would otherwise and that real prosperity reaches the regions, not through government bureaucracy but directly to families and villages, which I had the opportunity to visit on many occasions as the Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

On those occasions when I did visit workers and saw the PALM scheme in action in different countries throughout the Pacific I found exactly what this motion is speaking to the parliament today about: people who had been working on the scheme for a long time, people who were repeat workers, and farmers who had developed great relationships and links with people. It's a very successful scheme that deserves great attention from the Albanese government.

I'll speak a little bit now about some of the reforms that the Albanese government has made and some of the challenges that they might face, but I would just endorse, of course, that the Minister for International Development and the Pacific really does need to set ambitious targets, because this is a temporary visa scheme. And a temporary visa scheme is entirely appropriate for this kind of genuine engagement with different Pacific countries. It has had great benefits, working very well. So we'd encourage them to expand it. We'd encourage them to keep meeting the shortages in regions and to also look at the former government's very successful agricultural visa that was proposed as a longer term solution.

One word of caution I would add to the government's plans in relation to the Migration Amendment (Australia's Engagement in the Pacific and Other Measures) Bill 2023—that is, for the people listening, the green-card-style system that the government did have in its election policy, to be fair to it, though it was not spoken about—is that the unintended consequences of having a green-card system for the Pacific could be quite severe. The intention of the government in this regard for Pacific workers has been that it will deepen engagement with Pacific countries. But we've seen from New Zealand's system—and they speak to the New Zealand system—that often these kinds of initiatives can lead to depopulation of Pacific countries, which is not something that we want to see.

It can also sometimes lead to what is colloquially referred to as brain drain, where talented and smart young people migrate out of those countries when Pacific societies need as much investment in them. It was a policy objective of the previous government to invest in the countries, to invest in capacity, to invest in skills building. To me it is a great concern that the government may not have thought through the impact of their amendment to the Migration Act in relation to the green-card system that they're modelling on the United States one. While some people will say it's fantastic to bring people from the Pacific here on a permanent basis, I think the impact on those Pacific communities may be underestimated, and it's not something I think Australia would like to see over the long term. So I would urge the government to have some caution there.

To bring people's families out with workers, as well, can present serious accommodation challenges around Australia. We've seen that already. We have shortages of accommodation. We still don't have the formula right for rural and regional councils and mayors to build accommodation that is good quality but is low cost and is able to sustain workforces. More family members, including women and children predominantly but also other male family members, can put an additional burden on the accommodation system around Australia.

I would urge the government to look at the PALM scheme as a model of success. It's a very successful scheme, as the member for Riverina has highlighted. It deserves our full endorsement in our approach. Some of the measures the government is trialling are controversial, to my mind. They may not have thought through the direct policy work that is needed to back up a green-card system—a total change of policy direction—and the outcome that might happen in Pacific countries, as well as the detailed work that needs to go into the accommodation inside Australia and the other factors that we've seen can be quite challenging when people come here for regional work.

The success of the PALM scheme was in its very successful design and the return that went to the workers. We're thrilled to see so many Pacific Island family members coming back to Australia, taking up those work opportunities. There will be many, many more. We strongly support the PALM scheme. It is a temporary visa scheme, but it works, and it sends back skilled workers, with high amounts of remittances over time back into those communities, in some cases forming a substantial part of the GDP of many of those Pacific countries. It's a great investment from a coalition government. We urge the government to strongly support PALM and to keep PALM going but also to carefully consider the impact of their policy changes.