Peter Hughes, Arja Keski-Nummi and John Menadue. Part 1. Immigration Policy and Administration.

May 25, 2015

Fairness, Opportunity and Security
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue.


This paper sets out a broad design for Australia’s immigration, refugee and settlement policies for the coming decades.

The issues are covered in three parts:

  1. Immigration Policy and Administration
  2. Refugee Policy
  3. Migrant Settlement and Citizenship Policy

Part 1: Immigration Policy and Administration 

1.1 Guiding Principles

Australia’s planned immigration program has played a major role in Australia’s development over the last 70 years – directly adding 7 million people, including 800,000 humanitarian entrants, to Australia’s population and dramatically diversifying Australia from a predominantly Anglo-Celtic community to a multicultural society with more than 270 ancestries.

Through immigration Australia has been able to gain some of the best human capital in the world to build a nation, as well as making a humanitarian contribution.

Governments of both major parties have in recent years set Australia’s permanent migration programs at record levels in absolute terms and continue to do so (over 200,000 permanent migration and humanitarian visas planned in 2015–16). Temporary entry programs have also risen to unprecedented levels, well in excess of permanent visas.

At the same time, however, public debate in Australia has been diverted to, and dominated by, the relatively narrow issue of asylum seekers arriving irregularly by sea.

Immigration still has a major role to play in building Australia. It is important to our population, our economic development, to growing the workforce in an ageing society and to providing a population necessary to fund the overhead costs of a modern nation state occupying a huge continent.

Based on a projection of the current permanent and temporary immigration framework, Australia’s population will increase to 38 million people in 2050. Without immigration, it would stagnate at about 24 million people. It is estimated that, based on the continuation of current policy settings, migration will have added 15.7% to our workforce participation rate by 2050 and 5.9% in GDP per capita growth.[1]

Immigration also continues to play an important role in Australia’s ongoing integration with its near region by adding cultural and linguistic skills from regional neighbours that are important to Australia’s place in the Asian century.

The benefits achieved through migration to date cannot be taken for granted. Many other countries are competing for relatively young, highly skilled, English-speaking internationally mobile people.

In this context, Australia’s immigration policy needs to be reaffirmed and re-articulated for the coming decades to ensure that it continues to serve Australia as well in the future, as it has in the past.

Australian immigration policy should be guided by the following principles:

  • Australia should continue to have a planned immigration program for nation building.
  • Australia’s immigration program should be in the national interest – serving economic needs, but also including generous components for entry of people based on close family connections and on refugee and humanitarian grounds.
  • Australia’s immigration program should continue to be based on objective selection criteria, which are non-discriminatory on the grounds of race or religion.
  • Australia’s immigration program should retain a core focus on migration for permanent settlement with a pathway to Australian citizenship. At the same time, it should recognise the massive growth in international mobility and make continuing provision for large-scale temporary migration, where it can meet national interests in economic, social, cultural and foreign policy areas.
  • Australian governments should continue to set annual permanent and temporary immigration targets and planning figures, including indicative figures for forward years, but these should be administered flexibly without inefficient micromanagement to achieve rigid targets.
  • Australian government planning should continue to document an optimum figure for net migration gain and use this as a key reference point in permanent and temporary migration program planning.
  • Australia’s immigration program planning should be supported by research into post-arrival outcomes of migration.
  • Australia’s immigration program planning should be supported by regular consultation with key stakeholders – States and Territories, business, unions, migrant groups and the broader community.
  • Australia’s immigration program should continue to be supported by targeted services to those migrants who need them, particularly refugees, to assist with early, productive settlement and integration into the community.
  • Australia’s immigration program should continue to be supported by an Australian citizenship policy which promotes early take-up of Australian citizenship to ensure that migrants become full and formal members of the Australian community.
  • Australian government leadership is needed to articulate a vigorous, inclusive and unifying multicultural policy in cooperation with State and Territory governments.

1.2 Migration for Permanent Settlement

Australian immigration policy should continue to foster migration for permanent settlement to meet economic, social and humanitarian objectives (the latter discussed Part 2: Refugee Policy).

Migration to meet labour market needs should focus primarily on skilled workers with high-level, recognised professional, technical and trade qualifications. Programs should be designed to meet both long-term social capital needs to build a stronger skills base in the Australian workforce as well as short-term variable demand by employers.

The permanent migration program should be designed to meet longer term needs and remain relatively steady over time, leaving demand driven temporary entry programs to adjust up and down with the economic cycle.

Over the past decade, skilled people working in Australia under various temporary entry programs have increasingly become a feeder group into the permanent migration stream. Australian governments should continue to foster this approach where it meets the needs of the migration program and does not introduce perverse incentives into temporary entry programs.

Australia should permit permanent residence on the basis of business ownership or general investment in the Australian economy on a strictly limited basis, after detailed evaluation of the outcomes of previous programs. It has proven difficult to measure the concrete benefits to Australia of this form of migration. It exposes Australia to risks inherent in “selling” visas, dubious sources of capital, extradition problems with wealthy migrants who subsequently become fugitives from justice without clear offsetting migration benefits or economic gains.

The Australian government should establish advisory bodies, drawing on the skills of business, unions, demographers and State/Territory governments to design permanent and temporary entry programs that remain attuned to labour market needs.

Australian immigration policy should continue to make provision for migration based on close family connections, particularly spouses, parents and dependent children.

Policies in relation to spouse migration should continue to focus closely on the genuineness of relationships to ensure the integrity of this migration category. Adequate planning provision should be made to accommodate numbers of spouse visas consistent with Australia’s population growth and the greater interaction between the Australian community and foreign communities, rather than constraining spouse migration numbers with artificial ceilings and long processing times.

Policies in relation to the migration of parents of previous migrants should recognise the natural wish of some migrants to be able to look after their parents in Australia, particularly in their later years. Given the high costs that people in this age profile may impose on government budgets, such migration should continue to require a commensurate financial contribution from Australian-based sponsors.

Australia occupies a vast continent. States/Territories and regions have differing population, economic, labour market and social needs.

To be successful, migration policies and criteria must continue to be sensitive to the specific needs of particular industries and geographic locations.

State and Territory governments, regional governments and business should continue to be given the ability to sponsor migrants to meet their specific needs, while accepting responsibility for outcomes commensurate with their sponsorship of migrants.

1.3 Temporary Migration

Temporary entry programs have grown to unprecedented levels over the last decade.

There were some 800,000 temporary entrants in Australia as at 30 September 2014 (excluding visitor visa holders, bridging visa holders and New Zealanders temporarily in Australia – which bring the total to some 1.8 million)[2]. The flow of temporary entrants such as temporary skilled migrants, students and working holiday makers is well in excess of the permanent migration and humanitarian program, reflecting increasing global mobility and Australian entry programs designed to meet specific economic, social and cultural objectives.

Australia is in a position to continue to benefit from further growth in global mobility with well-designed, and internationally competitive, temporary entry programs, provided that the risks inherent in such programs are carefully mitigated.

Temporary skilled migration is an important tool in meeting short term, fluctuating skilled labour market needs and should be expected to rise and fall relatively rapidly in contrast to a steadier long-term permanent migration program.

Immigration policy should continue to enable responsible employers to sponsor foreign workers to meet short-term skilled labour market needs that cannot be met domestically. At the same time there must be program design safeguards to ensure that foreign workers are not less costly than available Australian workers and that there are sufficient protections built in to ensure that sponsors do not exploit foreign workers.

Immigration policy should continue to facilitate the entry and stay of people who are seeking to study in Australia and depart at the end of their studies, as part of Australia’s education export and cultural exchange. The degree of facilitation should be closely related to the immigration risk factors. A high degree of scrutiny should be applied to those areas of the education system where abusive practices are evident.

While immigration rules should provide access to permanent stay for foreign students, on the same basis as overseas applicants, there should be no guaranteed pathway to permanent residence for international students simply because of an Australian qualification. The export of education should be internationally competitive and stand on its own merits and not be subsidised by the permanent visa system.

     International education agents are in many cases the face of Australian education overseas. For consumer protection purposes, they should be subject to quality standards, registration and sanctions for misbehaviour in the same way that Australian migration agents are regulated.

Immigration policy should continue to foster opportunities, on a reciprocal basis, for young people from selected countries to live and work in Australia for periods of one to two years under working holiday arrangements. Domestic labour market impacts, especially on Australian youth, should be monitored and evaluated. Potential abuses need to be quickly identified and policy should contemplate annual limits on visas if required.

More recently, Australia has, on a small-scale, commenced assisting Pacific neighbours through targeted arrangements which enable temporary entry of seasonal workers in agricultural industries (the scheme is currently available to citizens of Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu).

Migration policy should leave scope for limited amounts of unskilled temporary migration in the context of Australia’s engagement with its region. Program design should ensure that such foreign workers are able to benefit financially from the arrangements without exploitation, that such arrangements remain competitive for employers who are unable to secure a consistent Australian labour supply and that the workers return to their countries of origin.

As a general point, many temporary entry programs are more inherently susceptible to abuse. It must be recognised that many foreigners temporarily in Australia with work rights are more at risk to exploitation than Australian workers because of their unfamiliarity with the Australian system, lack of informed networks and/or poor English language skills. Australian government and State/Territory government authorities should cooperate to ensure that such workers are given information on their rights and access to easily usable complaint mechanisms. Workplace inspection authorities must be adequately resourced to monitor for abuses in the workplace and sanction employers. It should be a criminal offence for employers to charge temporary skilled workers for sponsorship for either temporary or permanent residence.

Policies in relation to temporary migration should take account of the phenomenon of “circular migration” and foster this when it is in the national interest.

Australian immigration policy should continue to facilitate genuine tourists to Australia with fast and flexible visa and stay arrangements carefully calibrated to reflect degree of immigration risk.

1.4 New Zealanders

Under policy introduced by the Australian government in 2001 (in the context of arrangements for a reciprocal social security agreement between Australia and New Zealand), New Zealand citizens can enter and live in Australia indefinitely without meeting globally applied visa criteria, but do not have permanent resident status. They cannot access a range of government services without qualifying for permanent residence by meeting global migration criteria.

New Zealand citizens entering Australia on this temporary basis have an advantage over citizens of other countries in that they can freely enter and live in Australia, with access to the labour market, without meeting the permanent residence visa criteria applied globally to other nationals. As at 30 September 2014, there were over 650,000 New Zealand temporary residents in Australia[3] .

Some of these New Zealand temporary residents are able to meet globally applied permanent visa criteria and become permanent residents with a pathway to Australian citizenship. Many others do not have the skills and other attributes that enable them to qualify. This is resulting in what is unique in Australian terms – a long-term temporary population, including Australian born children, without access to permanent residence and Australian citizenship.

The Australian government should evaluate the outcome of the trans-Tasman migration arrangements, including the changes introduced in 2001, with a view to considering whether all New Zealanders should in future be subject to globally applied arrangements or whether existing arrangements should be retained and some concessional arrangements should be introduced to allow long-term New Zealand temporary residents to transition to permanent residence.

1.5 Immigration Policy and Regional Engagement

Permanent and temporary migration programs have over the years have played an important part deepening Australia’s engagement with its region.

India and China are now the top two source countries of permanent migrants. Asia-Pacific countries figure prominently in temporary skilled worker numbers. Nine Asia-Pacific countries are in the top 10 source countries of overseas students. Four Asia-Pacific countries are in the top 10 working holiday maker source countries. Asia-Pacific countries figure prominently in overseas tourism and a number of them are given the most facilitated electronic visa arrangements which Australia offers globally[4].

The most recent region-specific initiative has been the Pacific Seasonal Workers Scheme.

Australia has already invested significantly in cooperative arrangements on important, but relatively narrow, border management and migration control matters with regional neighbours.

At the multilateral level, Australia should be working to develop broader regional cooperative arrangements to ensure effective routine consultation and co-operation on management of migration within the region. This should include regular migration, irregular migration and refugee protection.

On a bilateral basis, Australia should continue to look at opportunities to strengthen and deepen its regional ties through migration arrangements that are in the national interest – including greater facilitation of travel for citizens of selected regional neighbours, whether permanent or temporary skilled migration, working holiday arrangements, student entry, tourism or expansion of seasonal worker arrangements. 

1.6 Program and Border Integrity

Australia has been able to achieve high level of success and of community support for a planned immigration program (which operates at a much higher level than other traditional immigration countries on a per capita basis) over many years because of its ability to effectively regulate movements to Australia in the national interest, maintain integrity of programs and achieve a relatively low population of unlawful non-citizens.

Well-developed entry policies, backed by a careful risk management approach, have enabled Australia to make the most of the world’s mobile talent and adjust to different potential source countries over time.

These policies have been supported by effective border management and compliance programs. These capabilities should be maintained at a high level. At the same time, they should be regarded as “processes” in support of Australia’s global activities to gain the best social capital for Australia rather than an outcome in themselves.

Effective intelligence, supported by domestic and international interagency cooperation is vital in responding to dynamic irregular migration, crime and security risks. Equally, domestic capability to enforce immigration law, including removal of people without lawful authority to stay, is vital to the integrity of programs and also to protecting migrants – especially temporary workers.

Australian immigration authorities need to use a variety of tools to ensure compliance with immigration law. These tools should always be proportionate to the risk presented. The use of “held” detention, except for very short periods to deal with identity, health and security risks, or risk of absconding, should be avoided as far as possible because of unnecessarily harsh outcomes which usually follow for those held in detention. Detention of children should be avoided wherever possible and special arrangements should be made for them if short periods of detention are unavoidable.

Alternatives to detention which enable immigration authorities to remain in touch with persons of interest who do not have authority to remain in Australia should be used wherever possible.

Any use of detention needs to be subject to rigorous external scrutiny of detention facilities and conditions as well as case-by-case examination of the reasons for detention of individuals being held for more than a short period.

1.7 Managing Migration – Australian Government Capability

Effective immigration programs do not run themselves. Australia needs an ongoing national capability to achieve domestic and international goals in relation to migration.

These capabilities include a strong policy capacity, backed by evidence based research and active evaluation of program outcomes to inform further policy. The most well-intentioned policies can have unintended consequences and these must be quickly identified and policy rectified.

This policy capability should be supported by a strong service delivery and operational network overseas and within Australia, backed by the latest technology.

The case for full integration of the Australian Customs functions with the Department of Immigration has never been convincingly made and no major unrealised synergies or efficiency gains identified.

The Australian Government should revisit the existing administration model to consider whether any real gains have been achieved or whether Australian Customs should become an operational agency within the broader portfolio or separated from the Department of Immigration.

One of the great strengths of the Australian immigration system until recently has been an integrated national administration which brings together entry policy, citizenship policy and post arrival settlement services. This has ensured a close feedback loop to entry policy based on the practical experiences and outcomes for different cohorts of migrants.

The migrant and refugee post-arrival settlement programs transferred to other departments in 2013, including the Adult Migrant English Program, should be returned to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

1.8 Australian, State/Territory and Local Government management of immigration outcomes

Consistent with its nation building objective, Australia’s immigration program necessarily impacts all states and territories, although to different degrees.

The Australian government should put in place mechanisms to ensure that State/Territory and local government are involved in short-term and long range migration planning. Immigration, whether permanent or temporary, brings prosperity, but it also brings with it the associated costs for expanding infrastructure. It is important that governments put the necessary processes are in place to ensure that infrastructure planning and implementation reflects population growth from migration and as well as natural increase.

The success of Australia’s immigration program has always depended upon community confidence in the efficacy of the program and its benefits for the country. All levels of government need to take responsibility for public education on immigration and its benefits.

Peter Hughes is Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy,
Visitor, Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2007-2010.

John Menadue was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1980-1983.

[1] Migration Council of Australia, The Economic Impact of Migration (2015)

[2] Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Temporary Entrants and New Zealand Citizens in Australia as at 30 September 2014.

[3] Department of Immigration and Border Protection, as above.

[4] Department of Immigration and Border Protection

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