Pathway to permanency to see 3000 Pacific workers settle in Australia each year

Labor mobility experts say a plan by the new Australian government to offer a visa that will pave the way for permanent residency for thousands of Pacific Islanders will lead to "brain gain" not brain drain, and help improve relations.

During the campaign trail, Australia's Labor party has proposed a "Pacific Engagement Visa" which would allow about three-thousand people from the Pacific to migrate to Australia annually.

A lottery will draw the winners, with a pathway to permanent residency in Australia the main prize.

"People will enter the lottery, with their family, if they have a family, and if they are lucky enough to be selected, then they'll need to find a job…to come to Australia,” the director of the Development Policy Center at the ANU Professor Stephen Howes said.

“But once they are here, there is nothing to stop them changing that job."

The lottery or ballot would be part of the new visa process that will allow three-thousand Pacific Islanders to settle in Australia each year.

It is to be modelled after a decades-old New Zealand-style lottery system that allows some Pacific Islanders to move there.

"It is a lottery in New Zealand, it is a very popular scheme, and so there are about 16 applicants for every successful candidate, that shows you how popular this scheme is going to be,” he said.

On a tour to Fiji, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong has renewed the commitment.

"We will ensure that those Pacific Islanders who come to work in Australia are treated fairly, with better conditions… We will create a Pacific Engagement Visa to provide a pathway to permanency for three-thousand members of our Pacific family per year," Ms Wong said.

Labor said while details still need to be worked out, they envisage that applicants have to be between 18 and 45 years old, have a job offer in Australia, and some English, and there are set to be country-specific quotas.

Labor said applications will be open to Pacific Islanders in their home countries and those in Australia on temporary visas. It is expected to start in July next year.

Professor Howes said the ballot-style system will give everyone a fair go.

"You are not advantaged by having more skills, so say, a doctor, and a bus driver, they can both apply for the lottery, so that is a good protection against the risk of brain drain.”

The temporary schemes will remain, but Labor has said there will be some improvements.

Among them is a government commitment to help with airfare costs.

Employers currently bear the brunt for travel costs, which are often passed down to workers as part of deductions.

"This would be a huge relief, not just for workers, but for employers as well.” Labour mobility expert Dr Rochelle Bailey said.

"But so half the problem we see now as with workers and their pay is the amount of deductions that are coming out."

However, Emily Foley from La Trobe University said many details are still unclear.

"The main question mark is that it's within the policy platform, for example, there's lots of 'we will address exploitation' and 'we will push for permanent residency', but it's not so clear, the mechanisms that they're going to use to allow for that to happen," Ms Foley said.

Another expected change will be that workers on visas for between one and four years can bring their families.

Some experts say they would like to see more detail on that since workers might need more family-friendly housing, and access to schools and potentially childcare.

The changes to the PALM scheme are expected to be rolled out from January next year.


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