What to look for in a Migration Strategy

Apr 22, 2023
A stamp and visa to enter Australia.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil will shortly (possibly on 27 April) release a new migration strategy. This follows a review of the migration system led by former Secretary of PM&C Martin Parkinson and a review of visa integrity by former Police Commissioner Christine Nixon.

But before we examine what should be in a migration strategy, it’s worth considering the recent history of this.

In March 2019, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued A plan for Australia’s future population. The plan actually said very little about Australia’s future population despite the headline. It largely focussed on minor tinkering of regional visas to ‘bust congestion’. In the subsequent 2019 Budget, the infamous ‘back in black’ budget, former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg used a long-term net migration assumption of 268,000 per annum and fantastic assumptions of long-term economic growth to try and show the Stage 3 tax cuts were affordable – they weren’t.

From 2015 to 2018, former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton unilaterally reduced the migration program while allowing net migration to rise strongly, illegally limited grant of partner visas, significantly reduced use of regional and state nominated visas, made the employer sponsored visa system international uncompetitive, allowed a massive increase in visa backlogs and blow out in processing times, sat by while we experienced the biggest labour trafficking scam in Australia’s history and introduced guidelines for ministerial intervention that the High Court has found were illegal.

To his credit, Dutton never claimed this was part of any grand migration strategy or plan. Long-term policy thinking is not Dutton’s forté.

Former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison (2013-14) focused almost entirely on ‘stopping the boats’ even though these had largely already stopped due to the second Rudd Government’s re-introduction of offshore processing. Awarding himself a trophy for having ‘stopped the boats’ was classic Scotty from Marketing.

From a broader policy perspective, Immigration Minister Morrison actually did very little but was actually positive about immigration. While there was a decline in net migration during the Abbott Government, for which Abbott subsequently sought credit, the fall was largely due to a sharp rise in unemployment that led to an increase in Australian and NZ citizen departures and a decline in returns.

In 2010, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Tony Burke as Australia’s first Minister for Population and tasked him to develop a population plan. The plan focussed mainly on sustainable development policies and very little on Australia’s future population directions or on migration policy. It was largely about neutralising comments Rudd had made earlier about a ‘big Australia’ as well as deflecting attention from the surge in boat arrivals after Rudd dismantled Howard’s Pacific Solution. Both of these issues were being attacked relentlessly by the Coalition.

Key features of a migration strategy

Given this very sad history, what should we look for in a sensible migration strategy? In my view a good migration strategy should have the following features:

Firstly, it should outline short and long-term migration and population directions and explain the underlying rationale for these. The starting point should be the long-term decline in natural increase of Australia’s population, the rate of population ageing and the current blow out in net migration. How this will be managed as we emerge from covid-era immigration policy settings and face the prospect of a sharply weaker labour market should be a policy focus.

For the longer-term, the strategy should clearly indicate whether Government agrees with Treasury’s long-term net migration assumption of 235,000 per annum. If so, the strategy should explain the policy rationale for this level of net migration, how this will be delivered including in terms of the composition of net migration and immigration policy settings. If the Government does not agree, it should explain why and what its long-term net migration target is.

Either way, the migration strategy should explain the long-term implications of the Government’s preferred long-term net migration level, including in terms of our long-term population size, age structure and geographic distribution as well as impact on other key policy areas including economic growth, productivity, labour force participation, skills development, budget impact, environmental sustainability, infrastructure, housing, congestion, and so forth.

Secondly, the migration strategy should address major flaws in visa design to align with overall policy objectives and delivery of the Government’s long-term net migration target. While visa simplification should be part of this, getting policy outcomes right through the right set of visa criteria is much more important. Some of the policy issues that need to be addressed are discussed here in terms of the migration system and here in term of visa integrity.

Overall coherence of the visa system should be another objective to deal with piecemeal changes of the past as well as the splintering of responsibility for immigration policy across multiple portfolios.

Media reports suggest that the migration strategy will include abolition of:

Thirdly, the migration strategy should deal with administration of the visa system including issues such as long-term funding of both visa processing and immigration compliance; development of IT support systems; staff training and a client service culture. The need for visa processing and visa compliance functions to work jointly is essential – something that appears to have been lost with the creation of Australian Border Force (ABF) and the de-prioritisation of immigration compliance.

Indeed, the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio has been an unmitigated disaster for immigration policy and administration. A standalone immigration department, as established by Arthur Calwell, should be reconsidered.

Finally, it is essential the Australian public can properly monitor whether the new migration strategy is being effectively delivered. The Government should make a clear commitment to regular publication of data on key indicators of the health of the visa system in a manner the public can easily access and understand.

Development of a comprehensive migration strategy is a complex and difficult task but also a crucially important one for Australia’s future. To her credit, Minister O’Neil has committed herself to this. Only time will tell if she and her successors can deliver.

Share and Enjoy !

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


Thank you for subscribing!