Politics Analysis

Dutton's visa mess too big for Budget to fix

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Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo were responsible for the visa integrity mess that Labor must now fix (Image by Dan Jensen)

While the recent Budget made a start, the visa integrity disaster left by the previous Coalition Government will take years for Labor to fix. Dr Abul Rizvi reports.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

LAST SUNDAY’S 60 Minutes show and this article in The Age reveal that the report by former Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon on the integrity of Australia’s visa system is absolutely scathing of the current system and administration. I wrote on the challenges faced by the Nixon Review here.

While the Government may not release that report to the public, possibly to protect the public servants under whose watch this debacle took place over the last decade, we know that it is worried enough about the situation to inject additional resources into immigration compliance in the 2023 Budget. I wrote about this possibility a few weeks ago.

How did the visa integrity problem escalate?

Visa integrity challenges have always existed and exist in the visa system of every nation. But from 2014-15, Australia experienced the biggest labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system in our history, initially using visitor visas for Malaysian and Chinese nationals (see Chart 1) to supply labour to farms, construction sites and sex shops.

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

The scam started a year or so after the immigration function was merged with the former Customs agency under Secretary Mike Pezzullo to form the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. At the time, he made it clear he had very little respect for the immigration function as it was traditionally conceived (too many care bears, nation builders, immigration policy nerds and old hands who had seen just about all there is to see in visa rorts).

That led to the exodus of a very large number of senior immigration officials who may have had the experience to warn Pezzullo of the scam and how to deal with it. Without that support, Pezzullo floundered with the scam and spent considerable effort dismissing it as an issue. That may also have been why former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also avoided talking about it. Dutton was far too obsessed with boat arrivals who weren’t actually coming and once he may have actually recognised the scam that was taking place, it was too late to admit he had been negligent in allowing it to happen.

Apart from the high refusal rate for asylum applications from Malaysia and China (usually in excess of 98 per cent), another indicator of the scam was the major drop in registered migration agents (RMAs) putting their names to asylum applications (see Chart 2).

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

Only RMAs (and immigration lawyers) who are supporting a genuine asylum claim are likely to put their name on the application. The others would hide their involvement.

Over time, the scam was also enabled by a steady drop in immigration compliance action as that meant both unscrupulous organisers (dodgy agents, labour hire companies), as well as employers looking for cheap labour, knew it was highly unlikely they would be caught (see Chart 3).

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

The decline in immigration compliance activity is also reflected in the decline in the number of overstayers held in immigration detention prior to removal (see Chart 4). If Dutton and Pezzullo had been serious about dealing with the scam, overstayers in detention would have been rising not falling.

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

While the average length of stay in detention has increased significantly and the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers in the community has exploded, very few unsuccessful asylum seekers and other overstayers are being located, detained and removed. This, too, would encourage people organising labour trafficking scams.

Dutton and Pezzullo’s rhetoric on border protection was just that — rhetoric. The overwhelming evidence is that they had no idea how to actually do border protection effectively. Part of the problem was funds for immigration compliance and visa processing being re-directed to Pezzullo’s various misadventures such as the now abandoned idea of privatising the visa I.T. system.

The recent Budget announces that the Government:

‘...will return funding of $163.2 million over two years from 2022-23 to the Department of Home Affairs to continue its visa processing capabilities, recognising the cancellation of the Global Digital Platform, associated with the 2016-17 Budget savings measure titled Reforming the Visa and Migration Framework, by the former Government.’

This might sound technical but it’s really just saying DHA promised to achieve massive savings by privatising the visa I.T. system that was never delivered. DHA asking for the assumed savings to be reversed would have been hugely embarrassing for Pezzullo after $90 million was wasted on this misadventure.

Dutton and Pezzullo have left the Albanese Government with a complete policy and administrative mess, including over 100,000 asylum seekers in Australia, the vast bulk of whom are being refused. That will take many years and cost a fortune to fix.

So what is in the Albanese Budget for immigration compliance?  

The belated entry of the Coalition and the Murdoch press into this debate (albeit with no recognition of the Coalition’s role in creating the problem and, of course, without a hint of how they would address the issue) has put pressure on the Albanese Government to act more quickly.

In the recent Budget, the Albanese Government announced $50 million over four years from 2023-24 (and $15.3 million per year ongoing) for additional enforcement and compliance activities to maintain the integrity of the migration system. Funding from 2025-26 will be held in the Contingency Reserve, pending an evaluation of the effectiveness of the activities. This is desperately needed as immigration compliance activities have been steadily degraded since Peter Dutton was Home Affairs Minister.

But much of these funds will be needed to enforce changes in visa laws from 1 July 2023, including the re-introduction of restrictions to working holidaymaker work rights, the higher minimum salary for temporary skilled workers and student visa work rights restrictions. Over the past 5-6 years, activities to enforce student visa rules and cancel onshore student visas have fallen away sharply (see Chart 5).

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

$17.9 million has been allocated to maintain or expand the Airport Liaison Officer function which is critical to disrupting illegitimate travel to Australia. A key aim of this will be to reduce labour trafficking abusing the asylum system, particularly as international travel ramps up further over the next 12 months.

Additional funding has also been allocated to implement a stronger “fit and proper person” test for registered migration agents. This is good, but unless the Office of Migration Agent Registration Authority (OMARA) is given real backbone to deal with unscrupulous agents, little may change. The OMARA appears to have become a captive of the industry rather than a true independent regulator.

A further $4 million in 2023-24 has been provided to continue the Immigration Assessment Authority pending the establishment of a new Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). This will be crucial to limiting growth of the massive asylum seeker backlog at the AAT but is unlikely to make much of a dent in it (see Chart 6).

A figure caption for your reading pleasure

The commissioning of the Parkinson and Nixon reviews has been a good start to dealing with the mess the Albanese Government has inherited as has the additional funding allocated in the recent Budget. But frankly, the size of the problem left by Dutton and Pezzullo is so big that much more will need to be done over the coming years to bring things back to an even keel.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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