CANBERRA - Australia will keep its skilled immigration intake steady for the 2006/07 financial year, the Government announced yesterday, disappointing business groups who wanted more immigrants to meet widening skills shortages.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said Australia would accept between 134,000 and 144,000 new skilled and family migrants in 2006/07, up by about 1000 on 2005/06, but with the skilled programme to remain steady at 97,500.

The new intake comes as Australia scours the world for skilled workers to fill job vacancies, and follows marketing campaigns in 2005 to attract nurses, plumbers and welders from India, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany.

The Business Council of Australia said it wanted the Government to lift the immigration intake to about 180,000 a year to help counter the impact of an ageing population and labour shortages at a time of record low unemployment in Australia.

"That's been our policy, to reflect what is needed over the longer term to maintain a stronger economy." council spokesman Mark Triffitt said.

"We also understand it is a pretty competitive market for skilled labour, but we think more needs to be done."

Vanstone said the skilled migration programme would maintain the extra 20,000 places announced as part of the 2005/06 intake, although the full impact of the current year's increase was still being assessed.

"Consequently, it would be imprudent to have a further jump in the skill stream until we are sure of the impact of the additional 20,000 places."

Almost six million immigrants have settled in Australia since 1945, when Australia began its post-war immigration programme to meet labour shortages.

The new intake for 2006/07 does not include Australia's humanitarian immigrant intake of about 14,000 a year.

- REUTERS