In announcing the outcome of the migration and humanitarian programs, immigration ministers have traditionally provided extensive details on outcomes against planning levels by visa category, as well as other relevant information (see here for examples of such reports for past years). For the 2017-18 outcome, Peter Dutton rushed to get the news out via an exclusive for the front page of The Australian around a week before the Longman by-election. But unlike past years, Dutton held back the details. The report on the 2017-18 outcome is still under embargo almost a month after the exclusive for The Australian. Dutton is unlikely to release the report until at least after the next Senate Estimates hearings in October.
So what could he be hiding?
The first question he will want to avoid is providing evidence to back up his assertion the cut to the program was the result of ‘greater scrutiny’. He will want to give opaque answers to questions such as: how did you arrive at the figure of a 46% increase in the refusal rate? Was the increase in visa application withdrawals due to an increase in the passmark for the skilled independent category and other rule changes rather than ‘greater scrutiny’? And what were the individual initial and final visa planning levels given to each overseas post and regional visa processing office – did these total to the 190,000 ceiling or the actual target Dutton was planning all along?
Dutton will want his ‘greater scrutiny’ story to keep running, not just to make himself look tough on immigration, but to avoid questions from the Treasury on why Dutton’s portfolio should not provide the savings to offset the net cost to the Budget that his cut to skilled migration will impose.
Another question Dutton will want to avoid is about how he achieved the reported cuts to the family stream. If the cuts were primarily to parent visas, Dutton is running out of room to further reduce immigration in 2018-19, as he will want to do, without contravening the sacrosanct two third skill to one third family balance. If the cuts were achieved by reducing visas for spouses, as was reported in The Australian, then Dutton and his Department will need to show how this does not contravene s87 of the Migration Act which prohibits the minister from limiting places for spouses and dependent children.
Dutton will also want to avoid scrutiny on how many visas were issued under the new permanent visa for New Zealand citizens. It has been reported that Dutton will reverse past practice started by the Howard Government of leaving such visas outside the formal migration program. By counting these visas as part of the skill stream, Dutton has effectively cut the skill stream even more than the headline figure suggests. This practice will enable him to cut the skill stream even more in 2018-19 without actually appearing to do so.
Another issue Dutton will want to avoid is questions about the massive blow-out in visa processing times and ballooning application backlogs, particularly the almost 200,000 bridging visa applications (ie mostly people in Australia waiting for a decision on their substantive visa). While Dutton will argue these are due to the ‘greater scrutiny’ his Department is applying, the reality is that such a large number of bridging visa applications reflects inefficient administration, a loss of control of the immigration system and a situation that rewards non-genuine visa applicants with extended time in Australia while punishing genuine applicants.
The blow out in processing times, which are due to a combination of poor visa design changes, reduction of places in the migration program without thinking through how the implications would be managed as well as inadequate resourcing of visa processing areas in the Department, are leading to more people choosing to come to Australia on visitor visas and then applying for the visa they really wanted after arrival. Because processing times are faster and there is comparatively limited checking associated with visitor visa applications, these people are effectively by-passing the ‘greater scrutiny’ involved with longer-stay and permanent visas until after arrival. It totally defeats the purpose of Dutton’s ‘greater scrutiny’ mantra.
The number of people arriving on visitor visas and then seeking to change status to a long-stay temporary or permanent visa has increased from 44,440 in 2013-14 to 71,870 in 2016-17 – these are unheard of levels for visitors changing status after arrival. These people are putting more pressure on the backlog of bridging visa applicants – a backlog that is likely to continue to grow unless action is taken to deal with it.
The contribution of these people to net overseas migration (ie the means by which the ABS counts the increase in population due to immigration) is already over 20 percent. This is greater than the contribution to net overseas migration of the family stream, the skill stream or the humanitarian program. Unless action is taken, this category could become the single largest contributor to net overseas migration – even greater than overseas students.
This is the ultimate indicator of a poorly administered immigration system.
Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.