The mirage of regional migration

Every now and again, a policy seeming too good to be true is heralded. At the intersection of immigration and urban planning, the issue is “regional migration”.

This week, regional migration has again been raised by the Queensland government. State governments are understandably worried about the confluence of growing populations, public infrastructure and housing policy (read: how the hell do we stop urban sprawl?). However regional migration looks too good to be true because in most circumstances it is. Governments have supreme difficulty in forcing people where to live. Given these people also tend to possess money and human capital, the job is even harder. Now, best of luck to the Queensland government, and their policies have yet to be fleshed, but there is no evidence to suggest this policy direction is worth tackling.

Lets start with the basics. The federal government can place visa conditions on migrants effectively forcing them to stay in specific geographic locations. However this comes with a major caveat. It is notoriously difficult to enforce and would require additional monitoring of migrants. People move, addresses change. All things the Department of Immigration doesn’t really need to know about because their central task – to get people in – has been achieved.

Further, of the skilled migration program (most of the migrants we are talking about), well over 50 per cent already live in Australia. This means they likely have jobs, houses, social networks and communities which they are embedded in. These ‘temporary’ migrants do not have official geographical restrictions on them and are more likely tied to employment or education. By placing a geographic restriction on these people to gain access to permanent residency, a significant barrier is created. While some will accede to this, others won’t. Other options – moving state, moving country or returning to their homeland – are real options which will be considered very carefully. Some migrants, such as resettled refugees will not be living in Australia and their settlement may be more conducive to regional areas. However, the expenditure required to support such communities is extensive and expensive.

So why does regional migration seem like such a good idea? The problem is the lack of policy losers. The people of Brisbane will support it, the government will champion it. Yet the unseen affects, the ‘opportunity cost’ to the migrants, goes unmeasured to the state of Queensland. Even if (a big if) the population is boosted in regional centres such as Townsville and Rockhampton, the inadvertent negative effects may outweigh any policy gains.

We should also ask ourselves should we be forcing people to live in particular places? Presumably there is a reason why population growth rates are higher in SE Queensland than regional areas. I’d take a guess at employment and education opportunities, living conditions and lifestyle entertainment. If I’m a skilled migrant, don’t I want to live in Brisbane where my human capital goes furthest? Of course, there are always different driving factors. People will choose a quieter lifestyle, however this is not reflected by the majority of people, the main reason why this is being proposed in the first place.

Despite more than three decades of appealing to move migrants into the regions, I have yet to see one economic or labour market study which confirms the effectiveness on regional economies. The historic appeal of the Snowy Mountain project lives in modern policy, yet no-one is certain what the effects of these policies are. These policies are based on intuitions and assumptions. More recently, governments have lowered barriers to migration on the condition migrants move to regional areas. Unfortunately this policy has been distorted so that Perth and Adelaide are now the two major ‘regional’ areas under this visa subclass. Quotas for regional areas are easily manipulated and subject to intense political pressure, typically resulting in sub-optimal policy outcomes.

Urban congestion, rising population and public expenditure is a pickle of a problem. But regional migration will not fix core issues which are embedded in urban planning policies, land use, taxation frameworks and infrastructure investment. This is an easy announcement which will achieve little, potentially generate significant costs and fail to address the concerns of suburban voters.

(as a sidenote, Gail Flocombe from Ethnic Communities Council Queensland says this may lead to social unrest and ‘ghettos’. This is extremely unlikely given the numbers involved. She is right to call for sufficient funding where it is currently lacking, as refugees require substantial assistance with regard to English, education and work opportunities)


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