The Australian immigration system is broken. Who knew? Who cared?

Nov 16, 2022
Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Cyber Security, Clare O'Neil

Mainstream media organisations apparently had neither the expertise nor the desire to recognise that the system was broken.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has publicly declared “the immigration system is broken” and initiated a review into its future. As Donald Trump would say…who knew? Who broke it? Why did it take so long for this fact to be publicly recognised? Will the government review lead to it being fixed?

Who knew it was broken?

Anyone with deep experience in the immigration system knew; applicants for Partner Visas knew; businesses sponsoring foreign employees for permanent or temporary visas knew; applicants for independent visas knew; applicants for Australian citizenship knew; asylum seekers knew; migration agents knew and applicants using the immigration appeal system knew.

The only people who appeared not to know were the mainstream media. Sure there were many well researched documentaries on particular scandals – exploitation of temporary workers, exploitation of working holiday makers, exploitation of sex workers; labour scammers using the domestic asylum system; unnecessarily cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the offshore processing centres and domestic detention centres and excessive use of the visa cancellation and removal powers, especially for New Zealanders. Astute writers in “think tanks” drew attention to the deficiencies of the skilled worker system and put forward cogent proposals for reform.

However, we rarely saw anyone join the dots and point out that the whole system was barely functional any more. It took a newly installed Minister Clare O’Neil to make the sad public declaration that Australia’s immigration system, until not long ago internationally admired and emulated, was “broken”.

Who broke it?

Australia’s immigration system didn’t break itself. The degraded system is the result of a conscious decision of the Coalition government to abolish the freestanding Department of Immigration and Citizenship, disperse its functions and relegate the immigration administration to be a bit player in the security-focused Home Affairs Department. These changes caused an immediate loss of decades of irreplaceable expertise. Policy and service delivery decay then inevitably flowed from Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and their successors using immigration primarily as a political wedge against Labor and from bureaucratic decisions to move away from a client service culture and drain resources from immigration and citizenship application processing. The system was simply run into the ground. Problems identified by Minister Clare O’Neil, such as an overly complex visa structure, were well-known and being worked on before the Coalition came to power, but no progress was made on them in their near decade in office.

It is unlikely that any Ministers or officials whose actions led to this policy and administrative decay will ever be held to account.

Why did it take so long to be publicly recognised?

Mainstream media organisations apparently had neither the expertise nor the desire to recognise the big picture of what was occurring. No national organisation that I know of mounted a public campaign for a reinvigorated immigration system of the kind we have seen happen in other areas of public policy. Business groups were singularly unsuccessful in pressuring the Coalition government to do anything to deal with their constituent members’ backlogs of sponsored overseas workers. Thoughtful reports on reform by various think tanks were never pursued by the government. The humanitarian lobby was largely ignored. Individual immigration applicants and sponsors obviously had no political clout and nor did applicants for Australian citizenship.

Perhaps the answer is that, although there are many constituencies interested in a well-functioning Australian immigration system, there is no single, strong and well-informed lobby group. For example, groups like the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia that once had a strong voice for migrants on immigration policy appear to have comparatively little now.

Although universities do have excellent pockets of expertise on immigration issues, especially in the area of demography, there are no centres of expertise on migration policy as a whole like the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in the USA. During time spent in the Australian National University, I encouraged the development of a Migration Policy Hub there given its proximity to the centre of policy making, but the idea received close to zero interest. Perhaps this was simply because of lack of university immigration policy expertise, the fact that migration issues did not fit easily into any discipline or simply that there was limited prospect of an external donor willing to hand over a few million dollars to fund it.

Despite its history as an immigration country and decades of global leadership in migration policy and administration, Australia’s capabilities evaporated quickly and silently.

The review “A Migration System for Australia’s Future” initiated by Minister O’Neil is a step in the right direction.

The appointed panel of former Treasury and PM&C Secretary Martin Parkinson, academic Joanna Howe and businessman John Azarias brings together a spread of economic expertise and depth of knowledge on some current hot migration issues such as temporary labour migration, worker exploitation and rural migrant labour.

The terms of reference reflect the fact that the government is between a rock and a hard place. Numerous policy and administrative problems in the immigration system need to be examined and fixed over a long time horizon – realistically two terms of government – but priorities need to be set. Some of the issues cannot wait.

The government has understandably chosen to prioritise economic migration and system efficiency and has ruled matters such as irregular migration, Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian Border Force, immigration compliance activities, administered programs and grants “out of scope”. At least the review is asked to put its recommendations in the context of “a holistic strategy that articulates the purpose, structure and objectives of Australia’s migration system”.

The enquiry has been asked to make an interim report by 28 February 2023 and report on further issues down the track. Production of even an interim report will be very difficult given most of the work of the review will be done over the Australian holiday period.

My former colleague Abul Rizvi has put forward a set of sensible suggestions in Pearls and Irritations on the key practical matters on which the reviewers might focus in the brief time available to them.

The huge raft of immigration issues that are defined as “out of scope” for the review needs to be dealt with by the government as soon as practicable. Other issues not even mentioned in the terms of reference – the humanitarian program, the asylum system, the review system, better pathways to citizenship for New Zealanders, settlement programs, multicultural affairs, timely processing of Australian citizenship applications and the place of Australian citizenship in our society also need to be addressed, when time permits, to improve policy and operational performance. They are all parts of a whole which determines the future shape of Australian society. They are not optional extras. Treating them as optional extras was amongst the many failures of the Coalition government’s approach.

Realistically, refreshed immigration, refugee, settlement, multicultural affairs and citizenship policies cannot continue to be carried forward as a marginal activity in a security-focused Department of Home Affairs. At some point the government will have to move towards a freestanding Immigration and Citizenship department to manage Australia’s immigration future. The recent appointment of an Associate Secretary in the Home Affairs Department with responsibility for immigration matters (although curiously not Australian citizenship and multicultural affairs, both of which are indivisible in a policy and operational sense from immigration) is a positive start in making way for a new administration.

Down the track, it might also be worthwhile to find a way to fund an independent national immigration policy think tank to keep governments honest in the development and implementation of immigration policy so that these important matters of national interest will not be able to fall into a deep hole again in the way that we have just witnessed. The media was in that deep hole.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!