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Clare O'Neil, Minister for Home Affairs, addressed the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra last week to speak on Australia's Migration System reform. Picture: Martin Ollman/News Corp Australia.

Australia’s migration system ‘too complex’ to solve nursing shortages

Australia's migration system has been branded 'crazily complex' in a landmark review published last week calling for major reforms to better attract overseas aged care and nursing staff.

The aged care sector is projected to have a shortfall of nearly 140,000 workers by 2024-25.

Sector stakeholders have proposed the federal government establish a specific visa for skilled migrants and consider partial or full HECS waivers to attract overseas staff. 

Last Thursday, Home Affairs Minister, Clare O'Neil, delivered the draft of a new migration strategy and called for urgent reform to the 'outdated' skill lists and employer sponsorship programs.

"We must end this era of policy neglect and laziness, where the system has passively run itself," Mrs O'Neil said.

"If populate or perish described Australia's challenge in the 1950s; skill up or sink is the reality we face in the 2020s and beyond.

"It means being strategic, decisive, and purposeful about who we need to help us meet the significant challenges we're facing and how we help them make their best contribution."

Mrs O'Neil said the 'broken immigration system' jeopardised Australia's position in the global competition with countries like Canada and Britain for skilled migrants.

Last year, the British government said it aimed to recruit over 10,000 overseas nurses, and Ontario, CA, is projected to be short 33,000 nurses and personal support workers by 2028.

Australia also faces significant labour shortages in higher-skilled and lower-paid roles, which the domestic workforce is unlikely to meet due to a vast reduction of working-age Australians.

By 2025, it's estimated that a quarter of all new jobs in Australia will be in the healthcare and personal assistance sector.

"Migration will never substitute our focus on skilling up Australians – it's not the full answer to any of these problems, but it is a part of the answer to all of them," Mrs O'Neil said.

"A big part of the puzzle here is the low pay of aged care workers.

"But even if we do everything around pay and conditions, we will still have a shortfall of workers in this sector."

Last year, Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles, said the department halved the nearly 1 million backlog of unprocessed visas after hiring 600 additional staff.

The move came after a federal government push towards faster visa processing to streamline the influx of overseas staff and reduce visa waiting times.

Applicants waiting on a short-term temporary skilled visa now wait roughly 38 days compared to 83 days in last June.

The backlog of skilled regional 887 visas was also reduced by half to promote more people working in rural and remote Australia.

But Mrs O'Neil said it doesn't change the system's complexity, which is causing 'real consequences for the quality of our migration program.'

"We have hundreds of visa categories and subcategories," she said.

"Australia's migration system has become dominated by a very large, poorly designed, temporary program, which is not delivering the people we need to tackle urgent national challenges."

The review said a clear migration policy was lacking to support lower-paid workers and protect vulnerable migrant workers, citing 'widespread evidence of exploitation among temporary workers.'

It also called for a simplified migration system by remodelling the temporary skilled program to promote long-term solutions and move away from restricted occupation lists.

While skilled migrants make up the majority of the Migration Program's planning figure, currently capped at 190,000 places, Mrs O'Neil said it didn't take into account the rising numbers of temporary migration.

The number of temporary migrants has doubled since 2007, reaching over 1,8 million people.

"We need to look to create proper, capped, safe, tripartite pathways for workers in key sectors, such as care," Mrs O'Neil said.

"Not only would this better support our industries, but it would also provide far better protection for the workers we depend on."

Australian College of Nursing (ACN) chief, adjunct professor Kylie Ward, said the skilled migration reform offered 'hope' for the nursing workforce crisis.

"Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil touched on the issues surrounding recognition of overseas qualifications," Mrs Ward said.

"We've spent countless hours developing solutions to the workforce crisis facing our industry, flagging skilled migration as a timely and effective way we can attract nurses.

"To know that the government is listening to our solutions to this very real crisis provides a beacon of hope for our exhausted but dedicated nurses across Australia."

The Labour Market Update revealed that Registered Nurses are the most in-demand occupation in Australia, with over 8,000 job vacancies in December 2022.

Aged and disability carers ranked third, accounting for more than 4,500.

Mrs Ward said 'removing bureaucratic obstacles' would allow more nurses and aged care staff to consider working in Australia.

"When we invest in nurses, we invest in the health of all Australians," she said.

"Migration reform to support skilled staff coming to Australia will help us strengthen our healthcare system and improve the quality of care for our patients and communities."

The Home Affairs Department will release its final migration strategy later this year. 

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