By Mehroz Siraj
The Queensland Government’s plan of encouraging refugees and prospective migrants to relocate to regional areas has been well received by communities and governing authorities in Queensland and nationwide.
In the week leading up to Australia day, Premier Campbell Newman, revealed that his administration was negotiating a Queensland specific immigration pathway with the federal government for new migrants who elected to live in the state’s least populated northern areas for a few years.
According to early revelations of the discussions, if new applicants for Australian permanent residency chose to live and work in Northern Queensland, their residency applications could be fast tracked.
At its current intake of approximately 100,000 immigrants annually, Queensland’s population is already tipped to rise to up to eight million, in 2034, according to the statistical data obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Premier Newman wants about half of the state’s future immigrants to live and work in regional Queensland, outside of Brisbane, Gold Coast and the state’s densely populated south-eastern region.
“We want regional Queensland to be the powerhouse of this state’s economy. We want people to live in those communities, be part of those communities, and create the job and economic opportunities that go with that,” Premier Newman said.
He added that immigration would help boost opportunities in fields like mining and tourism.
“The future is about north Queensland and tourism and industries that are developing, they are ever hungry for a new workforce,” he said.
Skilled and job-ready immigrants would play a leading role in alleviating unemployment and skills shortages from the state’s diverse regional communities, he added.
Although the technicalities of this new immigration plan are yet to be revealed, Premier Newman’s renewed focus on Queensland’s population planning and distribution has received widespread praised and acclaim nationally.
Last week, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that his department was open to working with Newman on any new immigration proposal that he kept on the table.
He also urged other states and territory government to consider Queensland’s bold immigration plan.
“The same offer is open to every other state and territory to make constructive suggestions based on their own population policies,” Morrison said.
Newman’s bold proposal also had support amongst state’s local government authorities.
Last week, mayors from Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton declared their full support for any new immigration initiative that the state and federal governments finalize in the coming months.
“We have a proven track record of settling people from overseas and welcoming them into our community,” Rockhampton mayor, Margaret Sterlow remarked.
“I am particularly delighted that our name rolls so quickly off the tongue of the Premier when he is thinking of major regional cities,” she said in appreciation of Newman’s plans of working closely with Rockhampton’s local authorities on the issue of immigrant settlements.
Mayors and independent experts however cautioned the Queensland government to take a less populist and a more practical approach.
“We need to create jobs for these people and we need to be able to educate these people so they can contribute to North Queensland society,” Townsville based economist Colin Dwyer told the Townsville Bulletin.
Mackay Mayor Deirdre Comerford said that although Premier Newman’s proposals were welcomed in principle, regional relocation of non-citizen immigrants and new Australians would have to come along with new investments in infrastructure and social services.
“When you are sending people, there has to be the employment that matches the skill set they have,” he told the Mackay Daily Mercury.
“You have to have support services. Often times, when funding is tight, they are the very services that get cut but they are fundamental,” he added, saying that more housing and better public infrastructure was required in Mackay before immigrants started to arrive in large numbers.
“No matter where the growth is, it costs,” Mayor Comerford said, emphasising that a population boost in Queensland would require rebuilding and upgradations of the state’s ageing electricity grids, water and road infrastructure.
Narelle Pearse, a Mackay based economist said that the Queensland government should research the specific needs of each region of the state and then plan its immigration and population planning policies accordingly, as is the case in New South Wales.
“Obviously the region is growing and we need to have the right type of people here to bring the right skills so we can grow our industries,” she told the Mackay Daily Mercury.
“It is a strategic approach to immigration around the skills that we need and it is particularly important because we do not want to displace our own workers,” she added.