AUSTRALIANS must always have priority in the labour market, but it is misleading to say there is always an Australian willing to fill a particular position. It is the role of the maligned 457 visa program to fill the gap where shortages exist.

The economic benefits of a well-managed overseas worker program are significant yet often understated. Australia’s overseas worker program — the 457 visa program — was managed poorly by the previous Labor government. Community confidence in its integrity was undermined.

Under Labor, the 457 visa program expanded rapidly from 68,400 primary visa holders in June 2010 to more than 110,000 when Labor was removed from office in September 2013. Much of this growth occurred in occupations not recognised as being in widespread shortage and this rapid increase occurred when economic growth was slowing.

Under the Abbott government the 457 program has fallen slightly to 107,306 at the end of February — a trend in line with the slowing demand in the labour market. Compliance statistics demonstrate the Coalition is enforcing the rules of the 457 visa program. We will be as tough on people seeking to misuse our skilled migration program as we have been on people-smugglers.

Under Labor, tens of thousands of migrants entered the labour force despite a lack of demand for their specific skills. Put bluntly, we need to ensure skilled immigrants are directed to the regions and industries where they are needed most and to jobs employers can’t fill locally.

Liberals tighten checks on 457 visas

Skilled migration should underpin local businesses, helping employ more Australians.

It was because of the loss of confidence in the 457 program, coupled with claims of widespread rorting, that I commissioned an independent review into the program last year.

The review found most employers used the program appropriately to address skills shortages. In relation to those few who sought to exploit it, tougher penalties were recommended.

The government releases its response to the review today. Strengthening integrity and compliance is a central principle.

Underpinning the reforms is the resolve that Australian workers have priority, while supporting Australian employers with genuine skills shortages to access the skills they need. Increasing the length of sponsorship and simplifying sponsorship requirements will ensure regulation is reduced. English language testing will remain stringent but will allow for a modest level of flexibility.

The changes facilitate the process for those sponsors who use the 457 program correctly while taking a firm approach to those who seek to misuse the scheme.

Compliance and integrity will be bolstered with a renewed focus on monitoring, sanctions and prosecutions. We will implement improved inter-agency information sharing and will make it illegal for an employer to be paid for a migration outcome.

A priority is to support the training of Australians to address skills shortages and to create the policy environment for private enterprises to expand and create jobs. A business that is forced to close because of an inability to access the skilled labour it requires ends up employing no one.

Skilled migration should be evidence-based and underpinned by a robust and transparent methodology.

Michaelia Cash is the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.

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