CANBERRA - Australia announced key changes to its immigration policy, designed to boost the economy and to woo workers to jobs shunned by its citizens.

A new visa category is being created to give permanent residency to wealthy migrants who invest at least A$5 million (S$6.3 million) in the country.

The government has also decided to allow foreign workers into the booming but labour-short mining sector.

Australia is moving to attract talent at a time when governments elsewhere are tightening the screws on immigration, or facing a political backlash on account of rising anti-foreigner sentiments.

Policies to attract talent have boosted economic growth in Singapore, which recorded the world's fastest rising number of millionaires in 2010, while adding about one million foreigners since 2005. Foreigners can be found in many industries in Singapore, from construction to hedge funds.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the new visa for the wealthy will shore up investments in Australia, particularly in infrastructure and managed funds.

The visas will be open to all nationalities and he said he expects keen interest from China.

'Australia is well-placed to attract investors who are looking for the financial security offered by a stable government and economy,' he said.

Starting in July, the visas will be issued to people who invest in either state and territory bonds, Australian Securities and Investments Commission regulated managed funds or directly in Australian companies.

Mr Bowen also said that the government has approved mining magnate Gina Rinehart's plan to bring in 1,715 workers for her A$9.5 billion Roy Hill iron ore project.

The mine is in the booming but remote Pilbara region of north-western Australia and the approval clears the way for the resources sector to use more foreign labour in major projects.

'There is no doubt that the Roy Hill project is one of national significance,' Mr Bowen told the National Press Club as he announced the first Enterprise Migration Agreement with Ms Rinehart's company, Hancock Prospecting.

Australia's economy avoided recession following the global financial crisis, with unemployment currently at 4.9 per cent, well below that of the United States and Europe.

But the resources sector, supported by continued demand from China and India, has long complained that worker shortages are constraining expansion.

The latest government figures show that more than A$260 billion worth of mining and energy projects are under way in Australia. There are A$450 billion of resource projects either under way or being planned.

The government estimates that the resources industry will need an extra 89,000 workers by 2016.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said projects worth more than A$2 billion and with a peak workforce above 1,500 people can apply to bring in foreign workers. The workers will have the same rights to workplace protection as Australians.

The new immigration rules are controversial.

Australia's unions say it is 'sheer lunacy' to let foreign workers in, saying they will take up jobs at the expense of Australians.

'This is just sheer lunacy, sheer lunacy, that in a week when so many jobs have been cut, to give Gina Rinehart the massive pat on the back and free Christmas present they did today,' Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes told reporters.