A migration system for Australia’s future

Nov 12, 2022
Male hands against Australian flag background, business, politics.

A three-member panel to review Australia’s migration system – former PM&C Secretary Martin Parkinson, academic Joanna Howe and businessman John Azarias – has been set the task of producing “a holistic strategy that articulates the purpose, structure and objectives of Australia’s migration system to ensure it meets the national interest in the coming decades”.

The terms of reference also require the panel to “identify the reforms needed to create a simple, efficient migration system that can effectively” achieve, well, just about everything.

This is only a bit short of the ultimate question asked in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – but the panel won’t have a super computer to help it and rather than seven and a half million years, it has only four months to produce the answer.

Luckily for the review panel, offshore asylum processing, border protection, detention, regularisation of visa status and the various visa rorts recently identified in the Nine Network’s ‘Trafficked’ series are excluded and will be addressed separately. It would be difficult, however, to design “a simple, efficient migration system” without considering non-compliance risks and how these are to be managed. The separate review of visa integrity announced by Minister O’Neil – details not yet available – will need to work closely with the migration system review.

Another escape opportunity for the panel is that only an ‘interim’ report is required by February 2023. That means the panel can choose what issues to focus on for the interim report and what to leave for later.

Short-term Priorities

So what should be the short-term, urgent issues the review focuses on for its interim report in February 2023?

First, it is highly likely the review panel will focus on employer sponsored migration, both temporary and permanent, given the focus on this at the Jobs and Skills Summit and because two of the review panel have a strong interest in employer sponsored migration.

The key to an internationally competitive employer migration scheme is speed, simplicity and integrity. The ideas put forward at the Jobs Summit to undo many of the silly changes Dutton made to employer sponsored migration in 2017-18 would be a good start. But the panel will need to be wary of employer lobby groups trying to use employer sponsored visas to suppress wages of semi-skilled workers – as they have since 2013 – and academics recommending ivory tower ideas that achieve little other than create administrative costs and delay. These ideas are already emerging.

Interaction of employer sponsored visas and the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme will also need to be considered. Increased integrity in employer sponsored visas would lead to the problems increasingly shifting to PALM visas which are also employer sponsored visas but separately managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. To some degree, this is already happening. The panel may wish to consider whether it is sensible to have employer sponsored visa policy run by two separate agencies?

Second, the review panel will be under pressure from unions to make recommendations to address migrant worker exploitation. Luckily for the review panel, it can quickly turn to the 2019 Migrant Worker Task Force Report. As recommended by the Task Force, legislation to implement penalties against employers who exploit migrant (and other workers) was developed by the Morrison Government but was not introduced to Parliament.

The tricky bit for the review panel will be opposition to strong employer penalties for wage theft from employer lobby groups and the fact the Fair Work Ombudsman will never have adequate resources to assist exploited migrant workers to make complaints. Will the review panel be prepared to recommend a stronger role for unions in this space or will it squib that option?

Third, the review panel must make recommendations to slow the rapid growth in (largely) bogus asylum applications that have already increased from a low of 600 per month during the pandemic to over 1,200 per month and rising rapidly. Urgent action is needed to prevent re-emergence of the massive labour trafficking scams abusing the asylum system that started in 2014-15 and was producing 2,500 asylum applications per month and only slowed due to international border closures. The two reviews will need to work together on this.

Fourth, in each month from June to September 2022, there have been record numbers of offshore student visa applications, most likely driven by former Immigration Minister Alex Hawke granting of unlimited student work rights and opportunistic lower tier education providers using this to attract students. At the same time there are now record refusal rates for these applications, partly on the basis of increasing fraud in the caseload. That reflects an appalling waste of resources. The review panel needs to quickly get to the bottom of this and make recommendations to put our student visa system on a more sustainable footing.

The Albanese Government has announced Australia will return to restricted work rights for overseas students from 1 July 2023. That is the right thing to do if we want our international education industry to focus on delivery of quality education. But there needs to be a clear transition plan that alerts students and agents to the change, explains how limited work rights will be enforced and helps students who have become reliant on unlimited work rights to manage the transition.

Fifth, funding for visa processing has been increased by around $40 million in 2022-23. That is a stop-gap measure. The review panel should make recommendations on a more appropriate long-term, output-based funding arrangement to underpin visa processing as existed under the Howard Government. That enables a more responsive approach to managing an efficient migration system.

However, a better funding model may not be enough. The review panel should also consider why morale in Home Affairs is one of the worst in the public service and that the Department has become legendary for its poor client service culture. Unless these issues are also addressed, little may change.

Finally, Treasury has forecast employment growth in 2023-24 will fall to 0.75 percent (and possibly lower given predictions of a global recession). It has at the same time forecast net migration of 235,000 per annum and population growth of around 1.4 percent. That can only mean a major increase in unemployment or a fall in participation. Past experience is that newly arrived migrants are hit hardest in a weakening labour market, especially as they face a four year wait for access to social security. The review panel should make recommendations on how immigration policy settings should respond to this in 2023-24.

Long-term Issues

Treasury’s long-term assumption for net migration is also 235,000 per annum but this assumption has been made with little explanation, no public consultation or links to immigration policy settings. As is now the case in all developed nations, net migration will be by far the dominant source of population growth in Australia and the major driver to slowing the rate of inevitable population ageing.

Given the critical role net migration will play in Australia’s future population directions, it is essential the review panel examine the basis of Treasury’s long-term assumption and identify more detailed links between the migration strategy the panel has been tasked to develop and Treasury’s long term net migration assumption.

The review panel should also examine the merits of Peter Dutton’s decision to make the migration and humanitarian program levels a ‘ceiling’ rather than a ‘target’. For most of our post-war history, the migration levels agreed by Cabinet have been treated as targets. This reflects good government as it gives certainty to Home Affairs on what it is required to deliver and other government agencies, both Commonwealth and state, a basis to plan their own service delivery responsibilities. The panel should recommend a return to using migration targets.

There is also merit in the review panel looking at some of the fundamental principles that have been the foundations of Australian immigration policy. These include the principle of non-discrimination in Australia’s permanent migration program established by Bob Hawke in 1989. The Coalition Government established two visas that contradicted this principle – one for New Zealand citizens and another for Hong Kong citizens.

The Albanese Government proposes establishing the Pacific Engagement Visa which will also contravene Bob Hawke’s non-discrimination principle. There may well be good policy reasons behind these visas but there would be merit in the review panel considering whether Bob Hawke’s non-discrimination principle should continue to be a foundational pillar of Australia’s permanent migration policy.

Another long-term issue for the panel is the skills recognition process for each major occupational grouping, particularly those that will remain in long-term demand. Many of these processes, for both migrants who studied overseas as well as overseas students who apply for migration after securing local qualifications, are unnecessarily bureaucratic and sometimes just nonsensical.

A simple example is the process for recognising teachers, particularly early childhood teachers. In addition, the processes to enable overseas students to undertake training in traditional trades just doesn’t work yet we face a massive shortage of people with such skills as baby boomer tradies retire.

There is a more general problem with the opaque nature of policy on whether we are in the business of encouraging overseas students to undertake targeted courses that meet Australia’s long-term skill needs and then move to permanent migration or whether policy is to discourage this as implied in the ‘genuine temporary entry’ requirement. A clear recommendation on this from the panel would be useful.

Finally, there would be merit in the review panel making some recommendations on the key indicators of the health of the visa system that ministers (and senior public servants) should monitor. When I was in the former Department of Immigration, we used around a dozen key indicators that we would review every month. These were generally simple indicators such as the size of the bridging visa backlog, rate of appeals to the AAT and its set aside rate, non-return rates for visitor visa holders.

It seems the current Home Affairs leadership has given up on monitoring such indicators – perhaps because performance is so bad, they don’t want to look.

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