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27 Jun 2017

By AMA Vice President Tony Bartone

The Federal Government’s decision to overhaul temporary skilled workers visas caught many of us by surprise, and has once again drawn attention to the medical workforce.

Under the reforms, 457 visas will be abolished and transitioned to a new multi-stream Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa system by March 2018. The new visas will have tighter conditions and include a smaller number of eligible occupations. It will also be harder to progress to permanent residency from the new visa class.

The new arrangements include the mandatory requirement for labour market testing, and the AMA was advised recently that this will include doctors. We have said all along that this is essential to ensure that the increasing number of locally trained doctors have enough opportunities to work, train and develop their careers.

The AMA cautiously welcomed the new arrangements when they were announced in April, but as is often the case, the devil is in the detail when government programs are reformed, and we are concerned that they have created uncertainties with the pathway to permanent residency for International Medical Graduates (IMGs) and full fee-paying medical students already working or studying in Australia.

The new TSS visa system is split into short-term and medium-term streams. Short-term visas will be granted for two years for those in an occupation on the newly created Short-Term Skilled Occupation List. Only one extension of a further two years will be available.

The short-term visa also has no pathway to permanent residency, which has left some international medical students uncertain about their future.

Medium term visas will be issued for four years for those in an occupation listed on the new Medium-Long Term Strategic Skills List (MLTSSL). This stream focuses on strategic medium to long-term skills gaps. For medical-related occupations, the MLTSSL retains most of the specialties that were on the Skilled Occupation List that until now has been used by the Government for independent skilled migration to meet the medium to the long-term skills needs of the economy.

Unfortunately, it is unclear how IMGs already here on a 457 visa might be affected if there are changes to occupations listed on the short-term and medium-term streams some time in the future.

From our perspective, it is essential that the above uncertainties are ironed out, and existing 457 visa holders continue on the same terms and conditions under the new arrangements so that those who have been working towards permanent residency are not disadvantaged.

Many IMGs have chosen to settle in Australia and are now working towards permanent residency, which can often be a very lengthy process due to the rigorous requirements they must satisfy to achieve general and/or specialist registration. I know from personal experience that these IMGs are contributing greatly to the health care system, especially in under-serviced areas. Changing the immigration rules for this group would be very unfair.

I’m also hoping that an effort will be made to refine the medical specialties on the short-term and medium-term occupation lists that have been put in place for the new visa system. The Department of Health had previously recommended the removal of all specialties from the former Skilled Occupation List, which the AMA backed strongly as Australia is producing enough locally trained doctors.

Until the visa changes are bedded down and their implications become clearer, it appears likely that most medical occupations will stay on the new lists.

We will continue to advocate most strongly that the medical occupations on these lists target only those areas where there is demonstrated workforce need, especially as it is likely that State and Territory health departments will seek to use the current settings despite the need to properly fund the additional postgraduate training positions that are so urgently needed for the large number of medical graduates facing a difficult and uncertain future.

Published: 27 Jun 2017