Since Australia shut its international borders in March last year, migration has plunged into negative levels for the first time since World War II.
Under the national reopening plan, the federal government has outlined a gradual reopening of international travel once key vaccination thresholds of 70 and 80 per cent are reached.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated this will prioritise the return of skilled migrants and international students, and previously said he has an “open mind” on a post-pandemic migration overhaul.
Senator Keneally said the “historic moment” of closing the international borders had presented the chance to transform the migration program.
She called for a migration program “that supports good, secure jobs for Australians – that stamps out wage theft and exploitation”.
“A migration program that creates equitable economic growth in which all Australians can share.”
Senator Keneally’s speech did not include concrete policy ideas on how a Labor government would seek to achieve this goal, instead stating that the party would have “more to say before the election”, which is due by May.
But she did push for a renewed focus on permanent settlement, quoting former Prime Minister John Howard: “you either invite someone to come here permanently, or you don’t invite them at all.”
The Labor senator raised concerns that temporary migration had risen to a “historic high” under the Morrison government and “made it harder for people to settle permanently or become citizens”.
She said this had turned a “successful model of migration on its head” and taken Australia’s migration program in the “wrong direction”.
“It is hard not to notice temporary visa holders, denied JobSeeker and JobKeeper, queueing up at food banks and charities during the pandemic,” she said.
“It is hard not to notice shocking examples of wage theft, like at 7-11, or exploitation, as chronicled in the #88daysaslave in the Working Holiday Maker program.”
A bipartisan parliamentary report handed down in August recommended the federal government investigate making it easier for skilled migrants to get permanent residency.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has previously told SBS News he believes migration will play a “critical role” in Australia’s post-COVID-19 recovery.
“I’m convinced that the migration program will be a huge part of how we recover from COVID and whether we will be as successful as we can be on that journey,” he said.
“We are focused at the moment on what the migration program needs to look like to support recovery.”
This year’s May budget revealed the government’s expectation that temporary and permanent migration is expected to gradually return from mid-2022.
Business and industry have been grappling with a chronic shortage of workers as a result of Australia’s halt to migration.
This has prompted some to call for migration levels to be boosted in a way not seen since the post-World War II era.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet earlier this week declared he was in favour of a “big NSW” and indicated he would work to address this issue with the federal government.
“We need to get the borders opened up,” he said on Monday.
“Then we need to market to those overseas countries to get some of those skilled migrants in because if we lose this opportunity, those skilled migrants will go to other countries.”
The federal government’s advisory body on infrastructure has also indicated a migration boost is needed to address skilled labour shortfalls.
Infrastructure Australia earlier this week released a report finding that more migration will be needed to fill the forecast shortfall of 105,000 jobs.