The report on the 2017-18 migration program has now been publicly released, more than two and a half months after an exclusive to The Australian newspaper and a short time after the Home Affairs department appeared before Senate estimates. As reported in The Australian, the outcome was indeed 162,417, over 27,500 below the ceiling of 190,000 – by far the largest program shortfall in at least 50 years.
The explanation for this outcome so far below the ceiling is “shifting risks and an increased focus on integrity resulted in the number of visa refusals and withdrawals increasing significantly in 2017-18. Total refusals increased by 46.2 per cent, while withdrawals increased by 17 per cent.” No one can object to increased integrity in the migration program. It is what the Australian community demands.
We cannot know, however, if this was the real driver unless Home Affairs is prepared to provide a detailed breakdown of the increased refusals and withdrawals by visa category; the main reasons for these; and the visa planning levels for each category that were provided to the department’s regional and overseas processing offices.
Certainly there were sufficient applications to meet the ceiling – backlogs generally grew in 2017-18, including the backlog of people in Australia on bridging visas waiting for a decision. Processing times slowed to alarming levels – even in visa categories where the application rate fell significantly.
Numerous examples have been given to me of visa refusals for bizarre reasons or because the processing delays led to information provided in the application becoming out of date. While some were corrected with the cases being re-worked by a more senior officer, often this was not possible forcing the applicant or sponsor to seek review at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The backlog at the AAT is now almost 50,000 applications – well beyond current AAT resourcing levels.
In my experience managing the migration program for 12 years, massive backlogs and ballooning processing times would have attracted severe criticism from ministers, stakeholders, the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman. But that no longer seems to be the case.
It should be noted that fees for processing applications are well beyond the resources devoted to this function (ie the government profits from almost every application lodged) even though the client service provided has deteriorated markedly, with no concrete evidence of increased integrity.
The 2017-18 skill stream was delivered at 111,099 visas with the two largest categories declining most significantly – employer sponsored migration and independent skilled. Visas issued in the employer sponsored categories were down from 48,250 in 2016-17 to 35,528 in 2017-18. While the application rate fell by 27.1%, the pipeline only declined from 53,094 persons at end June 2017 to 52,503 at end June 2018. This suggests a growing number of very old applications in the pipeline. Given that research consistently indicates these migrants have the most positive economic and budgetary impact, allowing these to age means non-genuine onshore applicants are being allowed to remain in Australia longer than they should while genuine skilled migrants who are urgently needed by Australian employers are being delayed. This is poor administration, not increased visa integrity.
Within the employer sponsored categories is the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS). The RSMS outcome in 2017-18 declined by 39% to 6,221 compared to 2016-17. Demand for RSMS places decreased in 2017–18 with 17,003 applications received compared to 20,236 applications in 2016–17. This decline is driven by major policy tightening making it harder for employers in regional Australia to access the skills they need. But the RSMS pipeline grew to 22,661 persons by end June 2018, an increase of 21.2 per cent (3,965 persons) compared to the pipeline as at 30 June 2017. Both policy and administration of the RSMS, which is the flagship visa for encouraging migration away from the major cities, is heading in the opposite direction to that publicly stated by the new Prime Minister.
The outcome for the skilled independent category in 2017-18 was 39,137 compared to 42,422 in 2017-18. The key to the lower outcome was the slow rate at which former Immigration minister Dutton released places for processing. There is no publicly available evidence this decline had anything to do with increased integrity. From 2017-18, and contrary to practice since the Howard Government, this category now includes New Zealand citizens who have been long-term residents of Australia and subsequently obtain a permanent resident visa. Thus to make migration program figures strictly comparable, 2017-18 figures should exclude permanent resident visa grants to New Zealand citizens. While this may have had only a small impact in 2017-18, it will from 2018-19 have a much larger impact, possibly around 10,000 places per annum.
The outcome for State and Territory Nominated visas increased from 23,765 in 2016-17 to 27,400. This reverses the downward trend in these visas of recent years.
The outcome for the Business Innovation and Investment Program in 2017-18 was 7,260 visas, exactly the same as in 2016-17. Demand for places in this category continued to grow strongly with the pipeline increasing in 2017-18 by 34.8 percent to 20,610.
The family stream outcome in 2017-18 was 47,732, down from 52,220 in 2016-17. Surprisingly almost all of the decline was in the partner category which fell to 39,799 visas issued. In each of the previous three years, exactly 47,825 visas were issued in the partner category – an astonishing outcome given, by law, spouse visa applications must be managed on a demand driven basis so some degree of variation would be expected.
This also raises a question of whether the department has been operating in breach of s87 of the Migration Act which prohibits the government from capping the number of spouse visas issued. The internal legal advice on this would be fascinating.
While partner visas issued in 2017-18 fell, new applications increased by 5.4 percent. The size of the pipeline fell by 0.8 percent to 80,936 suggesting a substantial number of applications were withdrawn, possibly due to lengthening processing times and applicants changing their minds as to where they will live.
At end September 2018, the AAT had almost 5,000 partner visa decisions for review. Its set aside rate for partner applications year to date is over 50 percent (ie over half of home affairs decisions that are appealed to the AAT are remitted to the department to re-process).
At some stage, government will need to address the growing backlog of partner applications. But if it continues to reduce the size of the skill stream, it will also need to abandon the policy of ensuring there is a two third to one third balance in favour of the skill stream over the family stream.
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.