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Politics Analysis

No certainty 2020-21 Migration and Humanitarian Programs will be delivered

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The Government announced changes to the Migration Program along with the Federal Budget (Image by Dan Jensen)

Along with the recent Budget, announcements were made regarding the Migration and Humanitarian Programs. Abul Rizvi examines the details.

THE GOVERNMENT has announced it will maintain the Migration Program ceiling in 2020-21 at 160,000 while reducing the Humanitarian Program ceiling from 18,500 to 13,750.

The cut to the Humanitarian Program is intended to save $945 million over four years. But the fine print suggests even this reduced program may not be delivered as long as COVID-19 international travel restrictions remain in place.

The bulk of the Humanitarian Program in 2020-21 may go to a few thousand successful onshore asylum seekers unless the Government decides to grant permanent residence to some of the 15,000 Temporary Protection visa holders currently in Australia. That would be sensible policy rather than leave these people in limbo for the rest of their lives for purely political reasons (because they came by boat when Labor was in power).

A Migration Program of 160,000 would be around 20,000 larger than actually delivered in 2019-20. It is highly unusual for an Australian government to increase the Migration Program during a recession.

So let’s look at the limited details that have been provided to date.

The first issue is actually a non-Budget announcement. The Budget says nothing about the temporary suspension of the four-year wait for social security that applies to newly arrived migrants. This temporary suspension expires on 31 December 2020, so it would seem the suspension will not be extended.

We do not know how many newly arrived migrants are currently on JobSeeker or how many that may be granted a visa in 2020-21 would need such support if they don’t get a job quickly or lose any job they currently have.

That will influence how both state and commonwealth governments manage the program in 2020-21. In a weak labour market, no government will want to be accused of bringing in migrants who fail to get a job and end up relying on charity.

The big change in the 2020-21 Migration Program is a major increase in places for the family stream from an outcome of 41,961 in 2019-20 (including child visas) to 77,300 (not including child visas) in 2020-21.

This would be the second-largest family stream in our history since 1987-88 when it was delivered at 79,500 (including child visas). It would also be the first time the family stream represented around 50% of the Migration Program since 1996-97 when balancing the program in favour of the skill stream became an article of faith under John Howard.

The Government would have agonised over this and is already making excuses that the offshore portion of the program will retain the two-thirds to one-third balance in favour of the skill stream.

In reality, Immigration Minister Alan Tudge had no choice but to increase the allocation of places for partner visas (72,300) to start clearing the backlog that has built up since Prime Minister Scott Morrison was Immigration Minister.

It was that or risk getting even more egg on his face as he may have at last been told by his legal advisers that limiting visa grants to spouse applicants is unlawful.

But why would the Morrison Cabinet agree to increasing the allocation of partner visas to an all-time high?

Did Tudge get scared by the Parliamentary motion from Julian Hill MP accusing the Government of being in breach of the Migration Act?

Did Tudge ask for formal legal advice on whether he was in breach of the Migration Act in limiting the number of spouse visas?

Did this advice go to Cabinet when it was setting the 2020-21 Migration Program?

Did Cabinet agree to the massive increase in partner visa places because Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are also implicated — after all, they did the same thing when they were Immigration Minister?

And Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo has been there throughout. When did he first find out limiting spouse visas was a breach of the Migration Act?

Sadly, we may not know the answers to these questions until the Cabinet papers are released in 25 years.

To try and limit demand for partner visa places in future (and to indulge in a bit of dog-whistling), the Government has also announced it will introduce an English language test for partner visa applicants and their Australian sponsors. Seems Australians will need to be much more careful in future when choosing who they marry.

This will require at least a regulation change which can be disallowed in the Senate. Senator Jacqui Lambie and the two Centre Alliance Senators will be under pressure on this one as Pauline Hanson will likely love this proposal even if many of her supporters (and perhaps Pauline herself) would struggle to pass such a test depending on the level of the pass mark.

In a late development, Tudge seems to have changed this policy now saying that no one will be refused if they don’t meet the required English language level but will be granted a provisional visa if they demonstrate adequate efforts to learn English before they are granted permanent residence.

This is better but really, at best, the Minister seems to be indulging in policy on the run.

In the skill stream, there are three key developments.

Firstly, allocation to the business migration categories has been increased from 4,420 in 2019-20 to 13,500 in 2020-21. The application backlog in this category is over 31,500 so delivering the increase is readily possible, although it should be noted the vast bulk of applicants are from mainland China.

Given current relations with China, co-operation from Chinese Government authorities to check the integrity of capital earned by applicants as well as security and police checks may not be forthcoming.

The Chinese Government may also seek to limit the ability of large numbers of its citizens taking massive amounts of capital out of China for investment in an unfriendly Australia.

Secondly, allocation for the Global Talent Independent visa has been increased from 4,109 in 2019-20 to an astonishing 15,000 in 2020-21. Despite having sent specially appointed staff to cities around the world to drum up applications, over 80% of the 4,109 visa grants were to people already in Australia.

There were only 2,448 applications on hand in this category at end June 2020, the bulk of whom will be onshore. Immigration processing officers will continue to be under intense pressure to encourage potential applicants to use this category over all others.

The Government says this category is for high-flying people with high tech skills and the potential to earn a salary in excess of $150,000 per annum.

In reality, the criteria for this category are super subjective. For example, no formal independent skills test; no English language requirement; no age requirement; no sponsor obligations; no labour market test; no sponsor training requirement; no actual requirement for the nominator to employ the person they nominate or to pay them any minimum salary at all.

But that means, at best, there will be huge inconsistency in decision-making with whatever benchmarks processing staff are instructed to use, constantly being dragged down to meet the extraordinary target of 15,000.

This visa category will be loved by migration agents with strong relationships with junior visa processing staff as they can wine and dine those staff to get favourable outcomes. The risk of bribery and corruption will be extraordinarily high.

Finally, the Government has announced that it will make it easier for New Zealand citizens who have been in Australia long-term to apply for formal permanent residence through the Skilled Independent category.

Traditionally, New Zealand citizens securing formal permanent residence have not been counted as part of the formal Migration Program. But those counting rules were changed under Peter Dutton to enable a further effective reduction in the intake.

Increased places for New Zealand citizens will increase the effect of that change in counting rules.

But the key characteristic of the 2020-21 Migration and Humanitarian Programs will be the portion that is granted to people already in Australia. This percentage is likely to exceed the record in 2019-21 and may well be over 80%.  

That would explain the forecast of negative net migration in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The first time we have had two successive years of negative net migration since the Great Depression.

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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