PREMIER Steve Bracks will push for an increase of 10,000 skilled migrants to Australia in the next financial year as skills shortages continue to bite in the regions.
Employer groups are urging the Federal Government to increase the skilled migrant program by 20,000 each year for the next two years, after the unemployment rate last month hit a 32-year low of 4.5 per cent.
The Federal Government last year froze skilled migration levels at 97,500 places in 2006-2007, claiming it would be "unwise" to have a big jump in the intake following a 20,000 increase the preceding year.
While in office, the Howard Government has more than doubled the size of the migration program, while the number of skilled migrants has tripled.
The Age believes the Federal Government will announce a modest boost in the budget but is unlikely to risk a backlash by massively increasing the intake.
However, changes will be made to the controversial temporary foreign worker visa program, which has been dogged by criticism from Labour and unions, which claim it has been exploited to undercut local conditions.
Under the changes, to be announced today by Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, new penalties will be introduced for unscrupulous employers, while those with a good track record could fast-track visa applications to fill skills shortages.
Skilled migration is a sensitive issue in an election year amid fears that employers are importing cheaper workers and depriving young Australians of jobs.
But Mr Bracks said Victoria remained "willing and able" to take more skilled migrants.
He said the state accepted 30 per cent of the nations intake of skilled migrants, even though Victoria only accounted for 25 per cent of the population. "But we can do better," he said.
Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and Mildura are four of the fastest-growing regional cities, resulting in a shortage of skilled workers including builders, doctors and other health professionals and accountants.
Victoria has a reputation as the gateway for immigration. In 2005-2006 it attracted the largest share of migrants granted state specific or regional migration visas of any state or territory.
The Victorian Government has also warned that the proposed citizenship test could dissuade potential migrants and adversely affect the states skilled migration program, which it says is crucial for its economic future.
Federal Vocational Education Minister Andrew Robb last week said Australia would tackle demographic challenges by harnessing technology and underemployed workers rather than resorting to a huge migration boost. He said he believed hiring skilled foreign workers to plug skills shortages would remain a low priority for businesses.
But the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group are lobbying the Government to increase the number of skilled migrant visas by 20,000 in 2007-2008 and by the same size the following year.
Look whos coming to Australia
Total migrant intake 67,000
Family intake 31,310
Skilled intake 34,670
Total migrant intake 143,000
Family intake 45,000
Skilled intake 97,500
Total migrant intake 144,000
Family intake 46,000
Skilled intake 97,500
Bracks would like an extra 10,000 skilled migrants. Employer and business groups would like an extra 20,000.
- Jewel Topsfield, theage.com.au
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