By Colin Packham
SYDNEY, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Australia plans to restrict some new migrants from living in its largest cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane - for "at least a few years" in an effort to ease urban congestion, a government minister said on Tuesday.
With immigration expected to be an issue in the next election, the plan aims to help ease infrastructure problems in cities struggling with population pressures. Critics worry the proposed new visa rules could lead to labour shortages.
Nearly 70 percent of the 186,000 migrants who settled in Australia last year arrived on skilled migrant visas, and nearly all moved to Sydney or Melbourne, according to government data.
There are currently no limits on where individuals can settle after they receive a skilled migrant visa.
The new plan would affect the roughly 40 percent of migrants who have the desired skills and are looking for work on arrival. It would class five cities - Darwin, Perth, Hobart, Adelaide and Canberra - as regional centres for migrants to settle in.
Some regional centres and rural politicians have lobbied for years for more skilled residents to ensure their towns survive.
"We aim to ease the population pressure off the three big cities and more rapidly grow the smaller states and regions," Alan Tudge, minister for urban infrastructure and population, said in a speech in Melbourne.
Tudge did not provide details on how the policy would be enforced, but he said it could include incentives.
"You can also put conditions on people's visas as well to stay in a particular area for at least a few years," he said.
An official in Tudge's office, who declined to be named, said migrants could be restricted from settling in the biggest cities for up to five years.
It's not clear if the plan would survive a legal challenge.
"It's certainly unsustainable to continue with the current model with the bulk of immigrants going to Sydney and Melbourne because it's creating significant pressure," said Tony Matthews, researcher at the Cities Research Institute.
However, he added: "I'm not sure its legally viable."
Immigration is expected to be an issue in the next federal election due before May 2019.
A ReachTel poll published in September found that 63 percent of Sydney residents surveyed said they supported restrictions on the number of migrants moving to Australia's biggest city.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose centre-right coalition is trailing in opinion polls, has adopted a series of populist policies since coming to power in August after a backbench revolt ousted his predecessor.
"Any policy that spreads migration will resonate. It will be popular with voters," said Haydon Manning, a political science professor at Flinders University in South Australia state.
There are also questions about the business impact in big cities, where job creation is outstripped migration, said James Pearson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Business and Industry.
"We must ensure there is a thorough understanding of the key factors that drive population growth, before implementing policies that have the capacity to negatively impact jobs growth and the economy," Pearson said.
Australia's central bank governor said in August an influx of new residents had helped to underpin strong economic growth.
"We've had 27 years without a recession. There are a lot reasons for that, but one of those reasons is that the population has been growing, on average, 1.5 per cent a year," Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe said.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Darren Schuettler)
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