Quick thoughts on the Innovation Statement from a migration perspective

I haven’t got around to reading Laura Tingle’s new Quarterly Essay yet. However I read the extracts and the commentary surrounding it and felt a little bit aggrieved. While I’m sure the public service has changed radically over the past three decades and not always for the better, I’m optimistic sound policy advice can be found within the APS and the system is not broken.

With this in mind, I was quite looking forward to today’s Innovation Statement. I can’t remember the last announcement in Canberra flagged with such enthusiasm.  The opportunity to dust off some well considered ideas and throw them into the political arena should be welcomed. After the announcement, Tingle herself wrote how the Prime Minister has been “prepared to take some policy risk, but wherever possible, aligning the risks with the best people to assess them”.

Four hanging yellow light bulbs. Perpetual motion. Idea concept.

I can’t speak for 22 of the 23 policy announcements detailed in these “fact sheets“. But on what I can speak to – immigration and visas – there is scant evidence of agility and even less for innovation. My immediate take is this seems like a wasted opportunity in a policy area where there are few fiscal constraints and new ideas are only limited by imagination and an ability to persuade. Malcolm Turnbull should be the person for the job.

There are three ideas in the migration space:

  • Providing more points to people who hold STEM and ICT post-graduate degrees under the Independent permanent visa pathway.
  • Establishing a new Entrepreneur visa (with consultation on the details to come)
  • Using the diplomatic service to better promote Australia as a destination to ‘talented individuals’

The third idea has merit. However Australia’s presence around the world is already stretched according to many. In this context, it is difficult to see how this will be achieved.

I’m less enamoured with the first and second ideas. Take the example used in the fact-sheet for dot-point one:

“Aiko has studied in Australia for many years and will soon graduate with a PhD in biochemistry. She would like to stay and work in Australia, but because she hasn’t yet obtained much work experience, she doesn’t meet the points test threshold to be eligible for a Skilled Independent Visa. Under the new arrangements, she will be eligible for more points, allowing her to stay in Australia and provide valuable skills for local businesses.”

In a vacuum, this would be a good policy idea. But Australia already has a well regarded immigration policy framework that in all likelihood looks after someone like Aiko.

If Aiko is aged between 25-32, had a PhD and can speak “proficient English” (equivalent to a 7.0 IELTS score), she already has 60 points in the points test, regardless of her job experience. If she has studied for an eligible occupation, this is already the requisite number of points to receive a visa based on current trends. If her English is “Superior”, she will likely receive an invitation for a visa within weeks of submitting an expression of interest.

What purpose will additional points assist Aiko? I’m genuinely stumped.

Further, even if Aiko falls short of the required points for some unknown reason (and I cannot think of a reason unless she is over 40 years old), she would very likely remain eligible for a different type of visa: the Temporary Graduate visa. As Aiko has undertaken a PhD, she is eligible for a four year work visa requiring no sponsorship from an employer. This work visa has no limits on occupation or industry, so if local businesses seek her ‘valuable skills’, they will hire her.

This policy idea reeks of offering something up that sounds good to outsiders but in fact will change very, very little in terms of immigration outcomes. Allowing all PhD holders immediate access to permanent residency would have been slightly more agile, stripping back regulation and making research in Australia marginally more competitive.

Moving on, an Entrepreneur visa certainly sounds more innovative than extra points in the points-test. Yet it too is likely more for show than anything concrete.

These visas have been tried elsewhere and failed. Why? It’s bloody difficult to think of a brand new business idea in one country, pick it up and get cracking in another. Scaling up a new business idea is really hard. Achieving this in a foreign marketplace exponentially increases the risk of failure. Consumer markets, supply chains and regulatory frameworks are just a few of important contextual factors that differ radically across countries. These are not easy barriers to adjust to and ensure business ideas that can succeed in Australia are more likely to be created by people who already live in Australia. Understanding this premise is pretty important.

Hopefully I’m wrong and this government can unlock the puzzle of entrepreneur visas. As there will be consultation around the details, I plan on being as helpful as possible in trying to help it succeed. However I do not have high hopes and it looks like people who have a poor understanding of how migration actually works have pushed this to the front of the queue in terms of new ideas.

Perhaps this sounds like sour grapes. I do not intend it that way. I genuinely believe immigration has a role to play in terms of innovation policy in Australia. I helped co-author this paper released last week titled, “Immigration and Innovation in Australia”. It outlines three ideas: a streamlined sponsorship for Startup businesses, expanding the reach of accelerators and incubators and a visa lottery for international students across the world to come to Australia.

To me, the three ideas in the Innovation Statement are not bad, they just won’t achieve much of anything. They are shiny on the outside but lack substance. This appears to be an opportunity missed, at least in terms of immigration and innovation.

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