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Minister hopes SA has "turned the corner" on youth brain drain

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South Australia’s outgoing minister responsible for population hopes new figures showing a long-awaited decline in young people leaving the state are a sign SA has “turned the corner” – but a new plan to boost local migrant numbers has drawn the ire of a former Immigration supremo.

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David Ridgway today gave the opening address at the Migration Institute of Australia’s Regional Migration Conference in Adelaide, telling attendees it was “my last official function as minister responsible for migration”.

Oversight of migration policy and administration will fall under David Pisoni’s Industry and Skills portfolio from next week, under new machinery of government changes following a wide-ranging review by former New Zealand trade minister Steven Joyce.

Australian Burueau of Statistics figures released last week showed SA still trailing all other states on population growth, with a 0.8 per cent increase in the year to September.

However, Ridgway was bullish about figures showing the net interstate outflow of 4,600 people was 31 per cent lower than in the previous 12 months, a result he called “really pleasing”.

“For the first time for many years we’ve just seen a small upturn in that trend… less young people left SA than for a long time previously,” he told the forum.

“So as I hand over to David Pisoni I can tell him, ‘I’ve turned the corner – make sure you continue to do that good work,” he joked.

The conference also followed the Morrison Government last week unveiling its immigration platform, which reduced the cap on permanent migration from 190,000 to 160,000 for the next four years, while introducing new Designated Area Migration Agreements [DAMAs], allowing SA employers to sponsor skilled overseas workers for positions they are unable to fill locally.

“Migration forms a vital part of filling the skills gap, particularly in regional SA… without it our population would stagnate and even decline,” Ridgway told the forum.

“The days of having a cookie-cutter approach is really not serving us well anymore.”

He said while “some states and cities want to slow population growth… there are parts of the country that want to grow their population and deal with significant skills challenges”.

“As a government, we’re working hard to get a greater share of our population right here in SA,” Ridgway said.

But the DAMA plan drew strong criticism from another speaker, former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi, who argued “the fundamental idea of tailoring regional migration to each region conceptually sounds really, really good but in my experience that level of tailoring has some challenges”.

“When you start tailoring that way every region would look over at the neighbouring region and say ‘what [concessions] have you got? Well, I want at least that’,” he said.

“It’s just human nature [to] want the most concessions, and you end up with a race to the bottom.”

Rizvi pondered whether there needed to be “some national threshold [on concessions] below which no-one will go”, but warned: “The moment you have that and a race to the bottom, ask yourself, what did you achieve?”

“I’m not sure the Government’s thought that through,” he said.

He also warned that the challenges of administrating such a system made it “incredibly complex at a time when Home Affairs is stretched for resources, with massive backlogs”.

“Enormous amounts of additional complexity is not going to make the world easier,” he said.

“I think the Government should re-think this one – I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

Labor’s federal immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann told the audience while “it doesn’t surprise me that some local councils have turned their attention to DAMAs as though they’re the silver bullet… they should be one aspect only of an immigration system”.

“The two SA DAMAs announced last week received much fanfare [but] I want them to receive proper scrutiny,” he said.

“How can we believe they’re of benefit if the state government is holding them hostage and won’t release details… why won’t the Liberal Government release the full details of the DAMAs that have been entered into?”

Neumann agreed that “we must not pit region against region [amd] there shouldn’t be a race to the bottom”.

State Labor’s migration spokeswoman Zoe Bettison said the Opposition wanted to focus on “ways we can improve employment outcomes” for skilled migrants.

“Everyone in this room knows that a visa applicant, a skilled applicant, who had the right skills on paper – but when they applied for work in SA it’s a completely different story,” she said.

“We ask people to come here because of the skills that they have, but one of the challenges we have in SA is that many jobs aren’t even publicly advertised.

“Unless you have a network, you don’t even know it’s there.”

Bettison said a challenge for government was to “support migrants to break down barriers to work in their area of expertise”.

“What I don’t want to hear ever again is a skilled migrant that’s come to Adelaide and can’t work in their profession,” she said.

“This is not the right message that we’re giving.”

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