Reflections on the new migration strategy

Dec 19, 2023
Australian immigration passport with passport and visa

The government’s new migration strategy is a commendable attempt to restore some shape to immigration policy and to deal with pressing short, medium and long-term policy problems. A massive implementation effort is needed to make it work. It comes at a time of a pathetic level of public discourse on immigration issues. Institutional change is needed to get immigration fully back on track.

What it aims to do

The government’s 100-page response to the Parkinson review comes nine months after delivery of the report. It sets out a blueprint for change with short, medium and long-term objectives and actions.

At the strategic level it has been publicly pitched as “bringing migration down to sustainable levels” because of serious community concerns about pressure on housing. But a drop in net overseas migration is something that may happen anyway with the ending of the post Covid inflow bubble rather than resulting directly from measures in the new blueprint.

The blueprint deals mainly with skilled migration and the international student system. It also addresses broader planning and coordination issues. It is aspirational at this stage. Implementation work will occur in 2024 and beyond.

There is a strong sense of “back to the future” as it promises to restore recklessly discarded past practices such as multi-year planning, coordination with State and Territory Governments, tripartite (government/business/union) cooperation, an integrity monitoring capability and to bring back at least a few published client service standards.

Some of the specifics are realignment of current temporary skilled migration arrangements under the banner of a new “Skills in Demand Visa” with three separate pathways based on Australian salary levels and the level of visa scrutiny getting more thorough at the lower levels. Pathways to permanent residence for migrants with these visas will be refined.

There will be tightening of the international student program. The much maligned “genuine temporary entrant” test will be replaced by a “genuine student” test. There will be more scrutiny on many student visa applications, slightly higher English language testing standards, shorter post-graduation work visa opportunities and restrictions on visa hopping.

There will be the usual tinkering with the points test for independent skilled migration and work on a new specialised Talent Visa. Existing commitments to special Pacific visas will be implemented.

There is also a promise of simplification of visa classes and administrative processes. Easier to talk about than meaningfully deliver.

Hopefully, most of it will work as planned, but we will not know until the latter part of 2024.

Slogans and realities

The release of the strategy and other migration topics currently in the public domain reminds us that public discussion of immigration matters is still bedevilled by very poor mainstream media coverage. Journalists with limited immigration expertise (or just with very explicit agendas) tend to repeat political slogans or pub wisdom rather than providing any genuine analysis based on evidence. Two examples come to mind:

The phrase “Big Australia” has been thrown around in commentary by the Opposition and media. It’s like the bogeyman used to scare children. Are you scared yet? But wait on – how big is Big Australia? Is it really coming? Maybe we are already there? What permanent migration number is too big? What net overseas migration number is too big? What is net overseas migration anyway? What population number is too big? Or too small?

Peter Dutton has cleverly weaponised an unfortunate throwaway line by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (remember him?) well over a decade ago that he favoured a “Big Australia.” But this idle phrase is now farcically thrown around as a serious political reference point in mainstream media without a single good or bad number ever being mentioned!

There was an Opposition and media frenzy created about protecting the community from non-citizens who have served gaol terms. The focus has been on the nearly 150 people that have been from released immigration detention which the High Court has said is simply not lawful under the Constitution. This has created real fear in some parts of the community.

But there are over 40,000 people in Australian gaols right now and many of them are being released each week. Why aren’t we so worried about them? What exactly is the special characteristic of non-citizens who have served gaol terms that makes them more of a threat to the community? If it is not practicable to remove them from the country, wouldn’t it be better to put them in rehabilitation programs to see that they don’t re-offend rather than create restrictions and conditions which ensure that they will.

What still needs to be done

The Labor government in 2022 inherited from the Coalition government an immigration policy vacuum and an administration that was in the worst state that it has ever been in the 75 years of its existence.

In the time available, Labor has done a highly creditable repair job. It has provided a somewhat improved administration, a better policy focus, ameliorated scandalous and unprecedented visa (and Australian citizenship) backlogs, re-introduced a serious immigration compliance function, regularised Temporary Protection Visa holders, increased the humanitarian program, resolved the long-term temporary status of New Zealand citizens in Australia and undertaken other specific initiatives. There is still much to do to remedy of the ten years of Coalition incompetence and destruction. It is a two-term agenda.

The stripped-down immigration function left by the Coalition within the Department of Home Affairs is likely to be a bottleneck for implementing the relatively small package of changes announced by the government. That is without even considering the many issues yet to be addressed. The Parkinson review covered only a small part of the urgent migration agenda.

The Associate Secretary position introduced by Labor to restore coordination and leadership to immigration has disappeared with the promotion of Stephanie Foster to Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs. This leaves the immigration function once again without a single point of leadership and coordination.

The only solution to the problem of painfully slow change is restoration of a freestanding Department of Immigration and Citizenship responsible for all facets of immigration policy and associated compliance, settlement, citizenship, and multicultural policy. That elephant has still not left the room.

It is also increasingly clear that there will not be intelligent, evidence-based, public debate on immigration matters without the establishment of an independent national migration think tank.

Finally, The High Court has ended 2023 by giving the government the opportunity to exorcise the ghost of Peter Dutton from detention (and citizenship deprivation) policy settings. The government should take that opportunity and not be goaded into developing hugely expensive, and totally unnecessary, specialist arrangements for punishing non-citizens.

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