LETTER: Pacific Labour Scheme letting relations down

A CENTRAL plank of the Coalition Government’s push to boost Australia’s engagement with the Pacific, its new Pacific Labour Scheme, has had a deeply disappointing first year.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has revealed that the Pacific Labour Scheme brought just 203 Pacific island country nationals to work in Australia since starting on July 1, 2018.

That’s around one-tenth of the number of workers the government predicted would access the scheme in 2018-19. The 2017-18 mid-year fiscal outlook budgeted for and projected 1935 visas being granted in 2018-19.

The scheme is designed to help employers facing labour shortages in rural and regional Australia while supporting economic development in our Pacific neighbours.

Labor has long advocated greater Australian engagement with the Pacific and the need to support the region’s development, human welfare and security challenges.

We welcome the fact that the Coalition has belatedly recognised the region’s importance with its Pacific Step Up strategy.

But the lower than expected numbers under the Pacific Labour Scheme raise questions about how effectively the Government is implementing its Step Up policies.

The 203 workers arriving under the Pacific Labour Scheme in 2018-19 is much lower than the 1,473 visas granted to Pacific islanders under the Seasonal Worker Program in its first year of full operation in 2012-13.

The Coalition has undermined Pacific labour mobility programs by deregulating working holiday maker, or backpacker, visas – which are running at more than 185,000 visas granted annually.

The Coalition’s deregulation of backpacker visas in 2017 has seen the number of visa holders granted a second year’s stay in Australia jump by 5,328 or 15.3 per cent in 2018.

This trend is likely to continue as the next round of deregulatory working holiday maker visa changes came into effect on July 1, 2019.

The government’s credibility in the Pacific is already compromised by its climate change policy. It would be concerning if poor implementation of programs and contradictory policy approaches further jeopardised its Pacific Step Up, given the importance for Australia of a prosperous and stable Pacific.

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