Politics Analysis

Somehow, immigration made us older in 2019

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Australia's Immigration Department, led by Alex Hawke, is responsible for the skewing of net overseas migration towards the elderly (Image by Dan Jensen)

In 2019, Australia had the oldest age structure of net migration on record. Rather than immigration slowing the rate of population ageing as it has for most of our history, in 2019, the rate was accelerated.

But how could that happen?

In 2019, the number of people arriving on visitor visas and staying on for the long term increased to an unprecedented 132,000 (see Chart 1). Over 40 per cent of net overseas migration in 2019 was people arriving on visitor visas and then being allowed to remain on some form of temporary visa. That represents around 25 per cent of total population growth in 2019.

(Graph supplied)

The number of people arriving on visitor visas and applying for asylum had already been increasing steadily since 2015 partly due to Australia’s biggest ever labour trafficking scam.

But what happened in 2019 was something totally new. Not only did the contribution of visitors to net overseas migration hit an unprecedented level, the age composition of net overseas migration in 2019 compared to 2018 also became significantly older.

The number of people aged 65 and over contributing to net overseas migration increased from around 2,500 in 2018 to around 17,000 in 2019. The number of people aged 60-64 increased from around 2,000 to 13,000 and the number aged 55-59 increased from around 2,000 to 9,000.

This skewing of net overseas migration towards the elderly has never happened before in our history.

In addition, by September 2021, over 13,000 temporary entrants in Australia had applied for a permanent parent visa and were on a bridging visa as they wait for their parent visa application to be finalised — they may have to wait many years on a bridging visa.

These people, as well as thousands more still on visitor visas, are generally not eligible to work and have no access to social support or Medicare or aged care services.

If they do become ill and require health services, these will most likely be provided at state/territory run hospitals and the costs will become a debt to the relevant state/territory government. The costs largely do not fall to the Commonwealth and hence the Morrison Government appears unconcerned.

These debts to state/territory governments will steadily rise as the large increase in elderly people in Australia on various forms of temporary visas gets older and requires more health services.

After the 2019 Election, the Morrison Government introduced a temporary parent visa that allows parents to stay with their Australian citizen or permanent resident adult children for up to two years.

They are permitted to work and study but are not eligible for any government services or benefits. They do not need to meet the Balance of Family test which limits the number of parents who are eligible as well as being required to meet health and character. Elderly parents sometimes find it difficult to meet Australia’s strict health requirements.

The visa application charge for the current two-year temporary parent visa is $31,980. 

Take-up of the onshore version of this temporary parent visa has been well below the level originally estimated. At end February 2022, there were only 2,898 people on this visa in Australia.

Clearly, the temporary parent visa introduced by the Morrison Government has not addressed the situation given the surge of parents on visitor visas staying long-term in Australia. These people will be on either a bridging visa or another visitor visa for many years.

In other words, they get to stay long-term in Australia but without paying the charges associated with the current temporary parent visa. This is a clear policy failure as potential users of the current temporary parent visa have worked out it's much less costly and just as convenient to use a visitor visa.

It should be noted that for over 30 years, starting with the Balance of Family test introduced by the Hawke Government in the late 1980s, Australia has run the strictest parent migration policy of all comparable migrant settler nations. The Balance of Family test requires at least half the adult children of the parent to be living in Australia.

The caps on permanent resident parent visas are now such that there are over 100,000 people in the parent visa queue.

I must confess that I was the public servant responsible for first introducing caps on parent visas to reduce the size of the family stream as directed by John Howard in 1996. That policy has continued to this day.

The objective of limiting parent migration has been to minimise costs to the age pension and to the health and aged care system of allowing unfettered parent migration.

Australia’s approach to parent migration has often been described as heartless. On the other hand, as our population ages further over the next 20 years, what obligations do governments have to existing citizens and permanent residents who will also require health and aged care services which will come under increasing and possibly unsustainable pressure?

So what is to be done? Just ignoring the current situation is clearly unsustainable.

Objectives of policy in this space should be to:

  • enable more parents to visit their adult children in Australia for longer periods than a standard visitor visa and thereby help with things such as child care;
  • reduce the accumulation of debts to state/territory government hospitals and minimise the rapidly growing pressure on the public hospital system from parents on visitor visas and bridging visas; and
  • reduce the extent to which parents are using visitor visas to stay long-term in Australia and replace this with a more workable and sustainable arrangement.

But achieving these objectives is wickedly difficult — not surprising neither political party wants to talk about this.

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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