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What does the 2019-20 Migration Program outcome tell us about future migration?

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The 2019-20 Migration Program is at the lowest level since 2004-05 (Image by Dan Jensen)

Abul Rizvi examines the future of Australia's Migration Program based on figures revealed in the outcome report for the last financial year.

IN JULY, I wrote on the issues the Government may consider in setting the 2020-21 Migration Program that it will announce with the 2020 Budget.

Now that we have the detailed report on the Program outcome, we can look at the likely size and shape of it in terms of application rates and backlogs in major visa categories at end June 2020.

At 140,366, the 2019-20 Migration Program was the smallest since 2004-05 and well below the ceiling of 160,000. The two-thirds to one-third balance in favour of the skill stream was maintained with a skill stream outcome of 95,483 and a family stream outcome of 41,961 plus 2,481 visas in the child categories.

Almost 70% of the skill stream was to people already in Australia and consequently did not impact net overseas migration (they had already been counted when they first arrived). Of the family stream, 56% was to people already in Australia.   

Partner visas

Despite a massive backlog and Migration Act provisions that prohibit the Government from limiting the number of spouse visas, the partner visa outcome (which includes prospective spouses) in 2019-20 fell to 37,118 from 39,918 in 2018-19. Chart 1 shows it was the smallest partner visa outcome since 2005-06.

(Home Affairs website, Migration Program Reports)

Possibly due to COVID-19, DHA gave greater priority to onshore partner applications in 2019-20 — onshore partner visa grants grew in 2019-20 to 22,903 compared to 20,490 in 2018-19 while offshore partner grants fell to 14,215.

There was a fall in the number of new partner applications from 61,884 in 2018-19 to 52,479 in 2019-20. No explanation for this is provided but hopefully, the decline is not because of rising processing times and application costs leading to Australians choosing to live in another country with their partner — that would indeed be unconscionable.

The partner backlog grew to 96,361 plus another 5,500 applications seeking review of a refused partner application at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In other words, the total partner backlog is now over 100,000. That is both legally and morally unsustainable.

Skill stream

In the skill stream, a major new development was that 4,109 visas were granted in the new Global Talent Independent (GTI) category against a planning level of 5,000.

This visa was announced with much fanfare including the appointment of “global talent officers” in London, Shanghai, Singapore, Berlin and Washington. But the place where they really needed these officers was Melbourne and Sydney as 3,344 of the 4,109 visas (81%) were granted to people already living, working or studying in Australia.

While this new category started slowly in 2019, there was immense pressure on the Department to drum up applications. Migration agents advise DHA was encouraging them and potential applicants who may have otherwise used the Employer Sponsored, Skilled Independent or State Nominated visa classes to use the GTI visa with its unlimited flexibility, rapid processing times, lower costs (including no formal skills assessment or English language test), no age requirement and no employer obligations. The approval rate for the GTI visa in 2019-20 was 99.5%.

No wonder the application rate increased rapidly with the Department having 2,448 applications on hand at end June 2020 (most likely attracted across to the GTI from the other visa categories they would have otherwise applied for).

But things that appear too good to be true usually are. This is a high-risk visa design the Government should urgently revisit.

The Government also reports increased take-up of its regional migration visas after many years of neglect. This was against the background of the Prime Minister’s “congestion busting” Population Plan of March 2019.

There were 23,372 visas issued under the two “new” regional migration categories announced by the Prime Minister which started taking applications from November 2019. Unfortunately (or perhaps deliberately) the Migration Program report does not breakdown how many of these were granted in the legacy regional visa categories and how many in the new categories.

All the evidence points to the bulk of the 8,372 visas in the new Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional visas (which replaced the long-standing Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme — RSMS) were actually legacy applicants in the old category. There were 8,897 RSMS visas granted in 2018-19 with 9,932 RSMS applications on hand at end June 2019. The number of applications on hand at end June 2020 in the new category was only 2,393. Thus, a large decline in visas granted in this category in 2020-21 can be anticipated.

Exactly 15,000 visas were granted in the new Skilled Work Regional category but, once again, we do not know how many of these were in the new visa category and how many in the legacy category.

It is likely that applications in this new category were stronger than in the new Employer Sponsored version.

The key issue for those granted provisional visas in both of these two categories will be the risk that in a very weak labour market, many provisional visa holders will not be able to meet the requirements to live and work for three years in regional Australia and earn a specified minimum salary level. What happens to those who do not meet the requirement after five years on these provisional visas is not clear from the policy announcement.

Has the Minister just kicked the can down the road for someone else to address the problem in five years’ time?

The outcome in the direct permanent residence state/territory nominated category in 2019-20 was 21,495, a significant increase on the 16,672 visas granted in this category in 2018-19.  

The generic Employer Sponsored permanent residence category had 29,261 visas granted, down from 33,025 in 2018-19. The key challenge for this category in future years will be the steady decline in the application rate (down from 34,966 in 2017-18 to 25,096 in 2019-20) and a steady decline in applications on-hand (down from 30,975 to 13,023).

As this category consistently delivers the best labour market performance and possibly the best outcome in terms of a positive budget impact, these declines should be of concern. They reflect not just a weakening of the labour market but also the impact of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s ham-fisted changes of 2017-18. The decline in the feeder stock of temporary Employer Sponsored visa holders in Australia (down from a peak of 196,934 in September 2014 to 128,145 in June 2020) will accelerate the decline in visa grants in the permanent Employer Sponsored category in the future.

Outcome for the Skilled Independent category fell to 12,986 in 2019-20 from 34,247 in 2018-19 and 39,137 in 2017-18. It should be noted that a sizeable portion of the outcome in this category since 2017-18 has included New Zealand citizens who have traditionally not been counted as part of the migration program.

Finally, the outcome for the Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) in 2019-20 fell to 4,420 from 7,261 in 2018-19. The planning level for 2019-20 was just under 7,000. The shortfall was not due to a lack of applications — the backlog in this category has increased from 18,897 at end June 2018 to 23,233 at end June 2019 and 31,661 at end June 2020.

It makes Population Minister Alan Tudge’s recent establishment of a Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce even more bizarre.

So what does this all mean for the 2020-21 Migration Program? I will be writing on this shortly.

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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