ABUL RIZVI: Prime Minister fudges regional migration figures

In a speech at the Migration and Settlement awards (23 October 2019), Prime Minister Scott Morrison crowed about the number of regional migration visas issued in the first quarter of 2019-20. Now Immigration Minister Coleman has announced the target will be increased from 23,000 to 25,000 and that Perth and the Gold Coast will be counted as regional. What the Government hasn’t explained is the increased target is largely the result of changing its own counting rules. It has little to do with substance.

The relevant excerpt from Morrison’s speech is as follows:

“As you know the Government, we have a permanent migration program of 160,000 places, and within that cap, now 23,000 places for regional visas up from the 18,000 places that we established before.

Because we put a priority on regional settlement.

We are seeing very positive results, with more than 6,350 regional visas granted already in the first quarter of this program – an increase of 124 per cent compared with the same period last year.

I think this is great!

And we are well on track to meet that 23,000 regional visas by the end of the program year.”

In fact the ‘very positive results’ Morrison is referring to is Home Affairs clearing a backlog of regional visa applications that Home Affairs itself created.

On 29 April 2019, I reported on Migration Program planning levels for 2019-20 (see here). These planning levels very clearly allocate 9,000 places for the new ‘Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional’ visa and 14,000 places for the new ‘Skilled Work Regional’ visa – 23,000 places combined. Both visas are scheduled to start from 16 November 2019. All other existing regional visas were to be counted under the same headings that they have been counted for years, if not decades.

On 18 October 2019, I reported on Inside Story (see here) that it is highly unlikely the Government will be able to deliver the 23,000 places in the two new visas because of poor design features.

On 22 October 2019, the Department of Home Affairs issued a paper titled ‘The Administration of the Immigration and Citizenship Program’ – this was drawn to my attention by an experienced migration agent. Paragraph 57 of this document states:

“The Government has for the first time allocated 23,000 places for regional skilled migration under the 2019-20 Migration Program. The Department is currently on track to deliver on this commitment. As at 30 September 2019, the Department was 10.3 per cent above pro rata. The program will be met through existing pipelines and uptake of new provisional visas”.

Leaving aside what is meant by the first sentence given regional migration visas have existed for over 25 years, and that far larger numbers of regional visas have been granted in past years, this is the first time the Government said the 23,000 places for regional visas includes some or all existing regional visas. Indeed, it is highly likely existing regional visas will dominate the much heralded 23,000 places due to poor design of the new regional visas.

It is this change in the counting rules that has enabled Minister Coleman to announce he has increased the target from 23,000 to 25,000. What he hasn’t explained is what portion of this 25,000 will be backlog clearance and what portion will be for the new regional visas scheduled to start from 16 November.

So much for delivering on a priority for ‘regional settlement’.

While we do not know which existing regional visas the Prime Minister and the Department of Home Affairs will include in the 23,000, it is reasonable to assume it is the long-standing Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS – sub-class 187 and started in 1995) and the state/territory nominated provisional visa (sub-class 489 and started in early 2000s). Both visas will be abolished to new applications after 16 November 2019 but applications on hand will continue to be processed.

Designating Perth and the Gold Coast regional for migration purposes is not a bad thing as long as this designation only applies in a way that smaller regional towns are not disadvantaged. Its not clear whether this will be the case.

And what of the year beyond 2019-20 when the Government does not have a large backlog of older regional visas to rely on? Can the two new regional visas generate sufficient demand to enable the Prime Minister to keep crowing?

Even with designation of Perth and Gold Coast regional, that is unlikely without major changes to the design of the two new visas as I explain in my Inside Story article.

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.

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