Jobs, community acceptance the key to success of regional migrant settlement programs

According to historian Dr Bruce Pennay, the key to viable settlement of migrants in regional areas is to "follow the money". 

In other words, there must be jobs in waiting for migrants and a workforce embraced by the local communities.

Dr Pennay, who was speaking at a forum held at La Trobe University's Wodonga campus this week, is an associate professor at Charles Sturt University in Albury.

It was a successful twin city arrangement, with a university each side of the Murray River a result of the Whitlam government's great decentralisation project of the 1970s. It was aimed at creating a population of 300,000 but fell well short — the current figure falls closer to 100,000.

Earlier last century, Wodonga also played a key role in Australia's "populate or perish" post-World War II migration scheme, receiving and processing 320,000 mostly-continental Europeans through the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre between 1947 and 1971.

It's fair to say Dr Pennay's academic observations from his own backyard give greater insight than usual about the Morrison government's current old-is-new-again move to "force" migrants to serve a minimum of three years in regional areas before they can apply for permanent residency.

From a local government perspective, fellow panellist and Wodonga mayor Anna Speedie says success on the ground is also aided by "making sure we have the right programs to help people settle". She defends the condemning nature of rhetoric about regional placement and she has a point — the fact that an academic forum is being held on the subject seems to question the many positives of regional living.

However, the reality is migrants do often see imposed placement in regional areas as term to be served in sufferance. Particularly if they cannot secure employment in their chosen field and are separated from friends, families and cultural ties. They often do their time and then leave. However, flocking to coastal capitals is a common trend for many Australian-born regional people too, hence the need for a Minister for Decentralisation.

Dr Pennay also noted the many success stories in recent times of government agencies — notably the Australian Taxation Office — relocating to regional cities to create jobs and invigorate local economies.

For the sake of diversity and equity, let's hope any policy compelling or incentivising newcomers to move to regional areas does so based on a desire for opportunity and prosperity, rather than cultural segregation.

Sally Harding is a Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University, Wodonga.