Politics Analysis

Visa lottery: Solution in search of a problem

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Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy announced a planned lottery system for Pacific Island visa applicants (Image by Dan Jensen)

A new lottery-style system for issuing permanent residency visas is a poorly-planned idea that will create its own share of problems, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.

THE MINISTER for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, last week announced the Government will soon introduce legislation for a visa lottery for people from Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste.

Every year, 3,000 places will be set aside for this permanent residence visa lottery — to be known as the Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV).

The objective is to ‘build up communities in Australia with strong ties to the region’.

Conroy goes on to say:

“This is the first time that we’ve allocated part of our permanent migration allocation to a specific region — and it is revolutionary.” 

This is completely untrue. Australia has for decades allocated permanent residence places in the Humanitarian Program for specific regions and in recent years, the Coalition Government developed permanent residence visas specifically for nationals from New Zealand and Hong Kong. But more importantly, why is a visa lottery the best way to build up communities in Australia with strong ties to the Pacific region?

Apparently, a visa lottery will limit the ‘exodus of people with specific skills from each country’. But that assumes Pacific Island people with skills will be prevented from applying for the lottery even though they are the ones Australian employers are most likely to want to offer a job. To be fair to Conroy, he is being advised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) which has little idea about visas or the history of Australia’s immigration policy.

It is true Australia has never before used a visa lottery to select permanent residents and future citizens. That is for good reason — visas are generally designed to address specific policy problems or achieve very specific objectives. A lottery is just about the worst way to design a visa.

Media reports suggest that ‘the two-step scheme will require those who succeed at the first stage to secure a job offer from an Australian employer and meet tests to check their health, character and basic English skills before they can arrive. The applicants also have to be aged from 18 to 45’. Presumably, that would enable people to move to the second step of entering the visa lottery.

The objective may be to encourage those who have come to Australia as temporary guest workers on the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (P.A.L.M.) Scheme to work on farms to return to their country of origin after having convinced an employer in Australia to give them a job offer on return to Australia on a PEV.

The Government may be hoping this will reduce the rate at which P.A.L.M. Scheme workers are running away from exploitative employers and applying for asylum — mostly with unmeritorious claims as the refusal rate is over 99 per cent. Since November 2019, over 5,000 Pacific Island nationals have applied for asylum in Australia.

While trying to reduce the rate at which Pacific Island nationals are making unmeritorious applications for asylum is sensible, the problem with this is that it places the employer in a position of great power over the employee at a time there are major complaints about P.A.L.M. Scheme workers being exploited.

How long will P.A.L.M. Scheme workers have to work with an employer before that employer promises to make a formal job offer when the worker returns to Australia? What level and duration of exploitation will the workers have to suffer noting that creation of the PEV will make P.A.L.M. workers even more reluctant to complain about exploitative behaviour lest the employer refuse to promise them a job offer on return?

While other details remain sparse, it is highly likely there is a strong debate across government agencies about how the new Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV) will work.

Of note is that the Budget costings assume a very high level of immediate take up of social security benefits with $57.9 million over four years allocated for social security and $33.6 million per annum ongoing. That is for just 3,000 people, including children, per annum.

That suggests people on a PEV will not be subject to the standard four-year wait for access to social security. It also suggests Commonwealth agencies have little faith in the job offer from Australian employers being taken up. Indeed, why would a former P.A.L.M. Scheme worker go back to doing back-breaking work at low pay and most likely in highly exploitative conditions?

The objective of using visa policy to develop better bilateral relationships with Pacific nations is laudable. In the long term, Australia will have no choice but to assist Pacific Island nations to deal with the impact of climate change by providing them with a pathway to permanent residence in Australia.

But the design of the P.A.L.M. Scheme and now this visa lottery is not the way to do it.

Visa policy in this space should have two objectives in mind:

  1. Minimise the risk of worker exploitation; and
  2. Provide a skills development pathway to permanent residence so that the Pacific Island community in Australia can aspire to better jobs with better pay and not be consigned to low-skill work at low pay.

To achieve these objectives, I would strongly recommend:

  • a more formal role for unions in protecting P.A.L.M. Scheme workers while they are on a temporary visa noting many of these workers are too afraid to complain to government agencies;
  • assist applicants for a P.A.L.M. Scheme visa to acquire a basic level of English before they arrive in Australia. Requiring a test of English language skills at the permanent residence stage is far too late as it is at the P.A.L.M. Scheme stage these workers are most vulnerable and need English language skills to communicate with their employer on wages and conditions and in terms of occupational health and safety; and
  • jointly with employers, Commonwealth and state government agencies should encourage and enable P.A.L.M. Scheme workers to develop trade and other skills that would lead to employers in regional Australia to offer them better jobs at better pay. A skills development pathway to permanent residence would reduce the social security costs that have been allocated and deliver far better long-term outcomes than a visa lottery.

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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