Regional migration can work, if done well

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to move migrants away from Sydney and Melbourne.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to move migrants away from Sydney and Melbourne.

There's a lovely story about the refugees who saved Nhill, a tiny town in regional Victoria crying out for workers.

It's the dream for politicians trying to figure out what to do with migration.

A migrant community from farming backgrounds, who wanted jobs, moving in large numbers to work at a duck farm and settling into a welcoming small town.

They've created tens of millions of dollars worth of economic value since then.

As politicians from Sydney and Melbourne worry about how to slow down the rapid growth of cities, the Karen people in Nhill seem like a glowing opportunity.

"What I'm talking about is managing where the population goes, where the temporary migration goes," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the ABC on Thursday.

"That means you can maintain a healthy migration program, but what you're doing is making sure it's getting to the places that need it, just like you need rainfall where you need it."

Sydney politicians especially are feeling the pressure of rising population, thanks to decades of focusing on roads rather than broader plans to make the city liveable.

Melbourne is well ahead on that front, but it's also a victim of its own public transport success. Thousands of people move there every week.

Australia can't force young Tasmanians and West Australians to stop moving to find work, like they always have. Permanent residents cannot be told where to live.

"But for temporary residents, those on temporary visas, non-permanent visas, then the powers the Commonwealth have are very, very different," Mr Morrison says.

The Regional Australia Institute recently hosted a meeting in Canberra about supporting rural communities looking to welcome migrant workers and their families.

"Workforce shortages are hampering growth in rural Australia and undermining the future of our towns," chief executive Jack Archer said.

"Locally-led migration strategies have proven to be the best way to connect migrants to jobs and welcoming communities across rural Australia."

So how to do it? How to get migrants to those regional towns crying out for workers?

The Nhill experience provides a shining example - and a warning for policy-makers.

It worked so well because there were plenty of jobs available, there was a willing migrant community, and a small town that went out of its way to welcome them.

That meant signing up local families to mentor refugee families, getting local community leaders on side, and schools, churches, and businesses.

Local champions determined to make it work, with a community of migrants who enjoyed the rural lifestyle.

Politicians looking at this model will not always have those superb conditions in place.

If the jobs aren't there, migrant communities will add unemployment to the other problems they face moving to new countries.

Without the local community strongly on board, regional towns risk seeing racism and division arise among old and new residents.

And the support needs to be there to help get new migrants settled in, their children into schools, and the details of their new lives clearly explained.

There are solutions, and as always they involve money.

The government can offer fast-track permanent residency for migrants who spend several years in regional areas.

It can identify industries that need workers, migrant communities who would fit the bill, and match them up.

It can pay for social workers to help migrants settle, pay for local cultural festivals, maybe a trip to the city once a year for a big event.

This program could work.

It might not slow down the rate of growth in Sydney and Melbourne, as young Australians move to both cities in search of jobs and opportunities.

Congestion in those cities isn't going away regardless of whether new migrants move to the country.

But it could reinvigorate regional areas and regional towns, similar to the post-World War II migration program that built much of modern Australia.

If it's done well, politicians could buy themselves some time to pay for the infrastructure still needed in Sydney and Melbourne.

And there could be many more towns like Nhill with lovely stories to tell.

Australian Associated Press