If I were the Minister for Immigration policy in the next parliament

May 11, 2022
Feet and a bag standing next a welcome to Australia written on a yellow line in the pavement
We now have an unprecedented 30,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers living in the community, mainly working on farms. Image: iStock

Under the Morrison Government we have seen the biggest wave of asylum seeker applications in Australia ever – at over 100,000. Coming by air it is almost twice as big as the fourth wave under the Rudd/Gillard Governments.

A new Parliament, and possibly a new Government, offers an opportunity for policy renewal, including in immigration policy.

Beyond its border protection mantra, over the last nine years the Coalition Government has implemented a hotch potch of immigration policy changes that offer little in the way of long-term coherence. The changes have been mainly to satisfy various pressure groups or perceived political advantage.

In 2014, the Abbott Government maintained the largest migration program in our history at 190,000 per annum while at the same time allowing net migration to fall sharply due to a weak labour market. A key part of the 190,000 migration program was former students securing permanent migration as has been the case for over two decades.

He re-implemented boat turnback policy and TPVs after boat arrivals had fallen sharply under the second Rudd Government which re-introduced offshore processing.

Whatever we may think of those policies, at least two of them – turnbacks and offshore processing – now have bi-partisan support from the two major parties.

After nine years of resistance, the Government has at last agreed to the NZ refugee re-settlement offer which should enable re-settlement of the remaining refugees on Manus and Nauru. That nine year delay has cost a fortune in human misery and billions of taxpayer dollars.

The Government has also released the Medevac refugees that were in onshore detention but with minimal support – they have effectively been thrown out into the street.

The key policy difference in terms of boat arrivals now appears to be that the ALP does not support TPVs which should mean that the legacy boat caseload can be either re-settled in a third country or offered permanent residence in Australia if there is an ALP Government.

A Coalition Government is likely to keep the legacy boat caseload on temporary protection visas indefinitely – a particularly cruel policy that achieves very little other than perhaps winning a few votes in some parts of Australia.

The latter months of the Abbott Government saw the beginnings of the fifth major wave of asylum seekers to Australia.

This wave is not discussed by the Coalition Government as that would undermine its ‘strong on border protection’ mantra, particularly as the wave really accelerated under Peter Dutton.

This has been by far the biggest wave of asylum seeker applications in Australia ever – at over 100,000, it is almost twice as big as the fourth wave under the Rudd/Gillard Governments.

But there are three other crucial differences between the fourth and fifth waves.

Firstly, the fifth wave is almost entirely a labour trafficking scam to supply cheap labour to farms. A common phenomenon in North America and Europe but new for Australia at this scale.

Secondly, the refusal rate for asylum applications in this wave is well above 90 percent whereas in all previous waves, the refusal rate was tiny.

And finally, unlike the fourth wave of asylum seekers, those in the fifth wave have continued to live in the community rather than being detained.

That remains the case even for the over 30,000 asylum seekers who have so far been refused at both primary level and at the AAT.

These people have no work rights, no access to any form of social support or to Medicare. They are in a highly vulnerable situation, particularly if there is a downturn in the labour market and jobs become more difficult to get.

And while we were experiencing this fifth wave of asylum seekers, Peter Dutton set about implementing three other major policy changes.

Without a Cabinet Decision, he reduced the migration program on the pretext he was applying greater scrutiny to assessing visa applications – a complete furphy that the media fell for hook, line and sinker.

Morrison decided to go along with the reduction on the basis this would ‘bust congestion’. He knew it would do nothing of the sort as the Treasurer was at the same time forecasting the highest sustained level of net migration in our history.

In other words, it was cutting permanent migration while intending to dramatically increase long-term temporary migration.

The forecast of high net migration was designed to support Morrison’s promise to create 250,000 jobs per annum over four years and budget surpluses as far as the eye could see. It was the ‘back in black’ budget that was designed to justify the stage three tax cuts for high income earners.

The second major policy change Dutton introduced was to abolish the former temporary skilled sub-class 457 visa and replace it with the new sub-class 482 visa.

This was not, as some have suggested, just a name change. Dutton made Australia’s employer sponsored visas fundamentally uncompetitive in a world where competition for skilled migrants will only intensify.

The changes also made it harder for students to find a pathway to permanent residence as skilled temporary entry is the fulcrum of our skilled migration system.

Business groups have been demanding Dutton’s changes be wound back but with little success. No one in the Coalition wants to upset Dutton.

Finally Dutton further restricted places for partner visas exacerbating an already unlawful action taken when Morrison was Immigration Minister.

That blew out the partner visa backlog to around 100,000 applications.

While the Government has now cleared that backlog and has committed to processing partner applications on a demand-driven basis, it has yet to confess to its illegal actions when it wasn’t processing partner applications on a demand driven basis.

The findings of forthcoming ANAO audit of partner visa processing will be both revealing and scandalous.

Under new Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, four new policy directions have been adopted.

Firstly, he has moved away from the Dutton practice of refusing any application that can possibly be refused to one where applications are being approved wherever possible.

Both approaches represent poor administration.

Secondly, Hawke (and Home Affairs Minister Andrews) have dramatically scaled back compliance action against employers using undocumented labour.

Given we now have an unprecedented 30,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers living in the community, mainly working on farms, it seems the Government is not keen on any backlash from employers who would lose their undocumented workers. A bit like the long-standing situation in the US.

Thirdly, Hawke has significantly shifted the balance of Australia’s net migration towards low skill guest workers.

This is not just about ignoring labour trafficking scams and implementing a demand driven Pacific Island Seasonal Worker visa and the new Agriculture Visa but also about major changes to student and working holiday maker policy.

Hawke has shifted the focus of Australia’s student visa away from study to a full-time unsponsored work visa where students can work in any industry for as many hours as they wish and have no employer sponsorship obligations to protect them.

That shift trashes the reputation of Australia’s international education industry and will mean more students who are unable to complete their courses and/or unable to secure a job using their Australian acquired education.

The change will reward the lowest quality and cheapest education providers who are only in the business of selling visas not education.

Hawke has also made the working holiday maker visa into a full-time unsponsored work visa by allowing these visa holders to work for the same employer for the full length of the visa. They can also now get a second and third working holiday maker visa without working on farms.

Finally, in 2019 we saw a dramatic increase in the contribution of people on visitor visas remaining in Australia long-term such that they represented over 40 percent of net overseas migration – an astonishing portion of net migration that took place prior to the pandemic.

The bulk of the increase was elderly people, most likely parents. 2019 represented by far the oldest age structure of net migration on record. Rather than slow the rate of population ageing in Australia, net migration in 2019 actually accelerated ageing.

These parents of Australian citizens and permanent residents have no access to any social support or Medicare but will inevitably need health services as they age further.

The Government has to date made no comment on this development let alone what it might do to address the situation.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the Government has forecast long-term net migration will be the highest ever assumed in any Inter-generational Report. But it appears the composition of net migration will be both older and lower skilled than in the past.

It will also result in a boom in the number of temporary entrants in Australia, many of whom will find it difficult to secure permanent residence.

No explanation for why it is doing this has been provided by the Government.

So what should be done?

First and foremost, a new Government needs to develop a long-term rationale for Australia’s immigration policy rather than just reacting to short-term circumstances. It needs to explain this rationale to the Australian public rather than just developing policy behind closed doors in conjunction with favoured lobby groups.

This long-term rationale should outline the key principles on which future policy will be based within the framework of a broad population policy that addresses issues such as how we will manage the consequences of population ageing from an economic, budget and service delivery perspective, infrastructure development, housing policy, skilled labour needs, environmental impact and social cohesion.

Within this framework, there are many specific policy changes that are desperately needed. I categorise these in four broad parts.

Firstly, we need to address the gridlock in the visa system so that visa applications are processed efficiently, quickly and with a high degree of integrity.

Gridlock in the visa system rewards the unscrupulous and penalises the honest. It effectively represents a loss of border control.

The massive 373,000 plus backlog in bridging visas, 200,000 plus citizenship backlog and around 100,000 asylum seekers, including over 35,000 asylum applications at the AAT, and the very slow processing of employer sponsored applications, must be tackled urgently.

We need to go back to using compliance action to discourage employers from using undocumented labour and ensuring employers meet their sponsorship obligations and pay an appropriate minimum salary – it is a disgrace that the employer sponsored minimum salary has not been increased since 2013.

Dealing with the gridlock in our visa system will require both changes to visa design and a massive injection of resources as the Government, and Secretary Pezzullo, have run down funding for visa processing.

Overall, funding for the immigration functions of DHA falls from $2.6 billion in 2021-22 to $1.7 billion in 2023-24 – a decline of $0.9 billion over two years.

With visa application numbers rising over the next two years as we return to more normal levels of international people movements, and the existing massive gridlock in the visa system, Home Affairs ability to deliver on its core immigration functions is in serious trouble.

Whoever wins Government will need to deal with this.

The second area of immigration policy that needs urgent attention is wage theft and the exploitation of migrant workers.

The 2019 report of the migrant worker task force recommended significant strengthening of laws dealing with wage theft and exploitation.

The Government consulted on draft legislation to protect migrant workers but failed to give the legislation the priority needed to be considered by Parliament.

That legislation must not only be a priority in the next Parliament but it must be significantly strengthened. Wage theft and exploitation, including use of highly ‘creative’ deductions, must be subject to strong criminal penalties that discourage such behaviour.

Moreover, funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman will need to be significantly increased to enforce this legislation. The FWO is currently drowning in the volume of complaints it receives. Those complaints would be just the tip of the iceberg as many migrants, asylum seekers and low paid guest workers are simply too afraid to complain about their exploitation.

Unions must be encouraged and enabled to play a stronger not weaker role in this space as they can provide the support migrant workers need to make their case.

As the Government has decided to rely increasingly on low skill, low pay guest workers, minimising the risk of wage theft and exploitation becomes even more important.

The third area of immigration policy that needs to be addressed is the increasing number of people caught in immigration limbo.

By this I refer not only to people on temporary protection visas and the almost 100,000 people currently in Australia seeking asylum.

I also refer to the massive increase in parents and grandparents who entered Australia in 2019 on visitor visas and remain in Australia. These people have no access to Medicare but are in the age category where they will increasingly need health services.

There are also over 150,000 people in Australia on temporary graduate visas – that includes around 60,000 temporary graduates on bridging visas as well as the growing number of people on the special Covid sub-class 408 visa.

To address the temporary graduate backlog and prevent another backlog emerging will require us to better design and administer student visas to ensure these are targeted at Australia’s long-term skill needs and not targeted at supplying low skill labour or the cheapest possible courses.

Australia’s ageing population will increasingly rely on both domestic and overseas students to fill key skills gaps. We must design visas to address those inevitable skills gaps and limit the use of low skill guest worker visas.

Frequently, this will require more sensible pathways from student visas, through temporary graduate and skilled temporary visas to employer sponsored permanent residence.

Finally, incorporating the immigration function within a security and policing portfolio has been a disaster for development of good immigration policy and administration.

We have benefited enormously since the start of post-war migration from a standalone immigration department which includes the immigration compliance function. We must return to that.

Whoever wins the forthcoming Election must address these issues urgently.

Read more from our If I were a Minister series

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