Fixing Immigration: five things an incoming Labor government could do

May 2, 2022

Labor, if elected, has a big job ahead of it in fixing the immigration shambles that the Coalition has created in nearly 9 years of office.

The Coalition came to office in 2013 with a narrow political objective for immigration. They aimed to make it a vote winner by turning it from a national “opportunity” to a “threat” in the public mind.

The Coalition gave effect to this narrative by theatrically launching the darkly uniformed, and armed, Australian Border Force to reassure the Australian community that it was being protected from the imagined threat. It then relegated the traditional nation-building immigration administration to a being a bit player in the wider grab bag of security and law enforcement functions in a newly-constituted Department of Home Affairs. Unsurprisingly, senior immigration expertise and corporate memory quickly walked out the door.

The resulting legacy of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Coalition government is a degraded immigration administration, a policy vacuum, unprecedented case processing backlogs and the unresolved status of thousands of maritime asylum seekers who arrived nearly a decade ago.

Immigration policy lost any real coherence. The Coalition indulged in the occasional bit of tinkering with the system here and there to respond to the latest interest group pressure or external event, but contributed nothing substantive. They gave us arbitrary permanent migration program cuts, seemingly random changes to the make-up of the permanent and temporary visa rules, “buy-a-visa” programs for investors, a dubious “global talent” visa scheme and on-again-off-again agricultural visas. Contrary to past practice, Australian Citizenship law was cynically used as a divisive political wedge rather than a unifying symbol.

Policy decay has been accompanied by poor program delivery and worse client service. We have seen consciously imposed delays on partner visa processing and decision-making on Australian citizenship applications, huge application backlogs in many areas and the government allowing the domestic asylum decision-making system to be consumed by applications from non-refugee producing countries as part of an apparent work scam. Migrant worker exploitation appears to have worsened with only weak countermeasures applied by the government. Scott Morrison’s initial response to Covid19 was to tell international students and working holiday makers to go home – leading to current labour shortages because of the loss of those very workers. Business remains frustrated by a fragmented skilled migration system and unnecessarily long processing times for workers desperately needed in Australia.

The government also oversaw the cruel and completely unjustifiable re-emergence of a long-term immigration detention caseload – with some people unbelievably in detention for more than a decade simply because their case cannot be resolved one way or the other. Last-minute dribbling out of some refugees from long term detention into the community and finally accepting the New Zealand refugee resettlement offer have only highlighted how bad the situation has become.

But, surely, the Coalition government stopped the boats didn’t it? On reflection, perhaps Scott Morrison’s landmark personal achievement was to successfully market the fiction that he did. Aided by the colourful theatre of Operations Sovereign Borders, he cleverly obscured the fact that measures taken in the second Rudd government had done the job before he took office as Immigration Minister, leaving him with very few boats to turn around. He also avoided responsibility for the 30,000 maritime arrivals that came after he, as Shadow Immigration Minister, thwarted the legislative change that would have enabled Labor’s Malaysia Arrangement to stop boat arrivals two years earlier in 2011.

There is a lot to be fixed. Here is what an incoming Labor government could do.

1. Restore CAPABILITY to develop good policy and deliver it – that means pulling immigration functions out of Home Affairs and setting up a well-resourced, freestanding, fully integrated Immigration Department. The Department would manage immigration, refugees, compliance, settlement, citizenship and multicultural policy.

If this is not achievable in the short term, at least making immigration functions semi-independent within Home Affairs under an Associate Secretary might be a good option as a transitional step. The agency would need new leadership, new skills and cultural change.

The Australian Border Force has been in operation since 2015. Its performance bookends in the immigration space are the aborted 2015 Melbourne street walk, supposedly to question people (unlawfully) on their immigration status, and the 2022 Novak Djokovic visa fiasco. It seems that immigration just isn’t their thing. There is a legitimate ongoing role for Border Force, but it should be completely removed from core immigration functions, such as compliance, and perform only the functions previously carried out by the Australian Customs Service.

These are big changes. If Labor doesn’t at least get started on this project, it will soon find itself immovably stuck in the quagmire that the Coalition left behind and unable to actually implement any meaningful reform.

2. Deliver COHERENCE in immigration policy – that means coming up with a clear vision of what immigration can do for Australia – pulling together immigration policy, refugee policy, settlement, citizenship and multicultural affairs.

Immigration will remain as pivotal to Australia in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century – even though it will continue to evolve and take on new shapes. It supports economic development, national security, family unity and Australia making its contribution in a world of displacement.

Coherent policy also requires a clear vision of Australia as a strong multicultural nation with a high rate of Australian citizenship. Permanent and temporary visa rules need to support that objective. Social cohesion in Australia has been built on giving migrants and their children a permanent stake in the country through Australian citizenship, not leaving them in limbo on various types of temporary visas for years and building up a large population of disenfranchised non-citizens.

In the past, Australian governments have wisely avoided guest workers schemes becoming the norm. Australian policy should continue to do so.

The visa structure needs to be overhauled and simplified to make it comprehensible and friendly and for all users. Restoring coherence will also mean that the policy functions for some visa categories that have been outsourced to other departments need to be returned to the immigration administration so that immigration policy as a whole can make sense again.

3. Restore INTEGRITY to the immigration system – that means stamping out rorts, prosecuting organisers, efficient immigration compliance and removal systems, well-crafted policy and well-resourced workplace monitoring to eliminate migrant worker exploitation.

The new administration will need to focus on getting rid of backlogs, resolution of status (particularly in the agricultural sector where reputedly many of the workforce are unlawfully in Australia) and clearing up asylum cases – letting the system once again concentrate on those who need Australia’s protection. This is a huge task in its own right because of the magnitude of the problem left by the Coalition.

4. Restore immigration as a key tool for ECONOMIC GROWTH – that means well-designed and delivered permanent and temporary visa programs to meet the needs of employers and State/Territory and regional economies, guided by the best economic advice and taking into account the best labour market information. Quick (and less costly to the user) processing needs to replace the current extended delays.

To restore a coherent and inclusive focus for the immigration program, clear and quick pathways to permanent residence need to be established for the people that Australia needs most.

A credible international student policy should attract the higher quality overseas students to the higher quality institutions and provide pathways to permanent residence for those who are highly skilled and needed in the economy. Australia should not be at the bottom end of the market.

Well-regulated Pacific worker schemes should be retained, but de-facto guest-worker schemes should be avoided. The selling of permanent “investment” visas to high net worth individuals, which has proved a mirage in terms of any measurable contribution to Australia’s economy in the past, should be phased out and the Global Talent Visa carefully evaluated to ensure integrity.

5. Restore HUMANITY to the immigration system – that means ensuring that the immigration system treats its clients as people and is not gratuitously cruel. This can certainly be done while recognising that no immigration system will be able to give every applicant what they seek.

A starting point would be to finally resolve the cases of tens of thousands genuine asylum seekers/refugees now stuck in limbo in Australia for many years. People in long-term immigration detention should have their cases urgently reviewed with a view to releasing them into the community under appropriate conditions so that their long-term future can be resolved there. Generally speaking, immigration detention should only be used as a last resort.

The sad political history of maritime asylum seeker policy in Australia means that Labor will have no real political choice but to turn around any new asylum seeker boats to Indonesia and to contemplate recourse to offshore processing centres as a last resort.

However, global displacement is at record levels and an incoming Labor government should regard Australia’s current Humanitarian Resettlement Program as being a minimum as Australia responds to developing world and regional crises. A more generous response to the Afghanistan crisis, in view of Australia’s extended involvement in that war, would be warranted.

The urgent need for a more human approach surprisingly extends into the ongoing operation of immigration and citizenship programs. Partner migration applications should be speedily processed without the return of delays and backlogs. Equally, it’s vitally important to restore timely processing of citizenship applications so that people who qualify for Australian citizenship can actually get it without the ridiculous and unprecedented delays which now exist.

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