The job keeper allowance is a massive tourniquet for the Australian economy and society. But for over 1 million temporary entrants, the allowance is a gun to their head.
While the job keeper allowance comes weeks late and represents possibly the biggest policy backflip in Australian history, it is desperately needed.
Precisely because it encourages employers to maintain their Australian and New Zealand citizen workforce, very few employers will have an incentive to retain any employee who is the holder of a temporary entry visa other than NZ citizens.
The allowance will dramatically accelerate the sacking of temporary entrants such as around 500,000 overseas students, 140,000 working holidaymakers, 120,000 skilled temporary entrants, 90,000 temporary graduates, over 200,000 bridging visa holders, most of whom are either partner visa applicants or asylum seekers, and over 16,000 temporary protection visa holders.
In addition, there are around 60,000 overstayers as well an unknown number of people on visitor visas as we do not know how many of the 600,000 visitors in Australia in December 2019 have gone home.
Remember that very few of these people have any social support to fall back on, even though they have been paying the full rate of income tax.
Many will not be able to find a flight home or will not have the money to pay for such a flight. Some are in genuine fear of persecution if they return home.
Unless the Government acts soon, it will have created a humanitarian disaster within Australia.
Assuming the Government does not wish to extend the job keeper allowance to temporary entrants, what should it Government do to avert this humanitarian disaster?
First, the Immigration Minister should announce regulations implementing a blanket rule automatically providing all temporary entrants in Australia, including visitors currently in Australia, whose visas will expire before 30 June 2020, with a new visa of the same type they currently hold with validity until 31 August 2020.
This assumes we will be passed the peak of the crisis by then and people will be able to more readily get home. It would significantly reduce the number of temporary entrants going into Home Affairs offices thus helping to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Second, the Health Minister should create a new Medicare item enabling all temporary entrants and overstayers to attend a doctor (inc by telehealth if appropriate) at no cost if they have flu symptoms or may have been in contact with someone who has recently returned from overseas.
The item should also cover if needed, the costs of a coronavirus test and hospital treatment. Overstayers would be given an assurance that they would not be reported to DHA/ABF if they come forward to a doctor.
Once again, the objective would be to reduce the spread of the virus.
Third, the Social Security Minister should issue regulations enabling all temporary entrants with work rights currently in Australia (including NZ citizens and visitors if they must self-isolate) with access to special benefits until 31 July 2020 given many will lose their jobs and will find it difficult to get home.
Note access to special benefit requires applicants to establish financial hardship and hence that will limit take up. Nevertheless, it is important applicants can undertake this process online and/or over the telephone to minimise risks of further queues at Centrelink Offices.
Centrelink staff should be able to undertake identity checks in conjunction with the Department of Home Affairs.
Fourth, the Social Security Minister should issue regulations providing a once-off payment equal to the cost of a flight home for temporary entrants (including visitors, overstayers and unsuccessful asylum seekers) without the financial capacity to get home.
The objective would be to prevent these people from becoming destitute. Arrangements with relevant foreign governments to compensate the Australian government for these payments should be negotiated.
Fifth, the Treasurer should extend the job keeper allowance to any temporary entrant currently working in critical occupations such as health and aged care.
The Immigration Minister should introduce a regulation enabling any temporary entrant working in these occupations to be able to secure a further 12-month visa of the type they are currently on by applying entirely online or over the telephone and on a no application fee basis.
This would ensure Australia has the staff it needs in these key occupations as the current health crisis escalates. At the end of the 12 months, these temporary entrants should also be provided with a clear pathway to permanent residence recognising the role they will have played in supporting Australians through the crisis.
Sixth, the Immigration Minister should increase places available for partners of Australian citizens and permanent residents in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 migration program. This should be possible without increasing the overall program as there will likely be a large shortfall in the overall program due to the coronavirus.
Australian citizens and permanent residents should not have to live separated from their partners at this difficult time.
Finally, noting it will not be possible to deliver the Offshore Humanitarian Program in 2019-20 or likely in 2020-21, the Immigration Minister should fast track permanent protection visas for the over 16,000 long-term temporary protection visa holders in Australia to take up the places freed up.
It is well beyond time that the Government recognised there is zero chance these people will ever be able to go home so there is no point keeping them on temporary protection visas.
The Government needs to act on the above urgently to avoid a humanitarian disaster.
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.