Australia: Major parties fail to provide rational immigration policies

Despite significant historical differences on migration-related issues, the 2019 election has seen the Labor party and Coalition government promote policies with major similarities. Populist and unsubstantiated reasoning pervades both major parties' immigration policies, demonstrating a limited awareness of the fact that immigration can and does improve the lives of the majority of Australians, both economically and socially. This update contrasts and critiques the key immigration policies of Labor and the Coalition.

Cap on immigration

As part of its National Population Plan, the Coalition has announced that it will cap permanent migration at 160,000 for the next four years, down from 190,000. However, only approximately 162,000 permanent immigrants have been admitted in the last year, and Professor Andrew Markus, research professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, empahsises that temporary visas are the greatest contributors to population growth. This reality suggests that the Coalition's proposed bid to manage Australia's population growth through decreasing the permanent migration cap is little more than a proclamation of its populist, anti-immigration stance. Labor has not yet announced any such cap.

Parent visas

The capacity of Australians of migrant backgrounds to bring their parents to Australia for extended periods has attracted increasing attention since the 2016 election campaign. In June 2016, the Coalition promised the implementation of Temporary Parent visas; of which the first applications can be lodged from 1 July 2019. This visa has failed the Coalition's 2016 promises, imposing overly restrictive requirements on sponsors. Not only are there fees of $5,000 and $10,000 for the three- and five-year visas respectively, but to qualify as a sponsor, a migrant family's annual taxable income must be in excess of $83,000. Furthermore, families may only sponsor one set of parents, and visas may only be renewed once from outside Australia. Finally, the Coalition places a cap at 15,000 places per year.

The Coalition's Temporary Parent Visa system has been criticised by Labor, which proposes to abolish and replace the existing scheme with its own Sponsored Parent Visa. Labor promises to abolish the 15,000-place cap on parent visas, allow families to sponsor two sets of parents, and allow parents to renew their visas in-country. Labor also proposes to reduce application costs, from $5000 for a three-year visa to $1250, and from $10,000 for a five-year visa to $2500. Unlike the Coalition's overly restrictive scheme, Labor's proposed changes are adversely unrestricted. Demand for parent migration has existed for many years, and current options available are laden with significant costs and backlog. Labor's uncapped and vastly cheaper option risks opening the floodgates to parental immigration without adequate public resources to meet the demand.

Neither of the major parties' parental visa schemes demonstrate awareness of the significant implications they pose to the people they allege to assist. Predominant demand for extended parental visas lies in aging grandparents wishing to meet and connect with their grandchildren. Under the Labor and Coalition schemes, these aging visa holders will have no right to the pension or government-funded aged care; they will be required to pay their own medical expenses; and will not be able to work. This will present significant issues when their visas expire after up to ten years, requiring them to return to their home countries with deteriorated health and funds, and a potential dearth of friends or family-members left to care for them.

Temporary work visas

Changes introduced during the Coalition's term in power have made it significantly harder for Australian employers to sponsor skilled migrants on temporary work visas. The former-457 work visa was replaced with a new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa and the new Subclass 482 visa; the latter of which contains a short-term stream with no pathway to permanent residency, and can only be renewed once. The Department of Jobs and Small Business is responsible for reviewing skilled migration occupation lists; such reviews have been undermined by a lack of efficiency and resources, and the making of such lists can oversimplify the fact that particular jobs – and their requisite surpluses or shortages – vary significantly with experience. These changes have almost halved the number of overseas workers in Australia.

Labor proposes to further restrict skilled migration through significantly increasing the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) as part of its 'Protecting Local Workers' package ('PLW package'), thereby increasing the minimum wage that employers can pay 482 visa holders from $53,900 to $65,000. The PLW package will further substantially increase the Skilling Australia Fund Levy payable by employers when nominating workers under temporary and permanent employer-sponsored visa schemes. These changes pose a number of serious problems, particularly in terms of their immediate application across all regions without regard to differences in geography or average socio-economic status. This presents substantial adverse impacts for regional areas, which are generally characterised by lower salaries and costs of living, whilst ever-increasingly relying on foreign labour. Labor will further emulate the Coalition in granting the power to review skills shortage lists in a tripartite Australian Skills Authority; and will unnecessarily require offshore assessment and testing of overseas workers to be conducted by a Trades Recognition Australia-approved Registered Training Organisation. Labor's PLW package goes too far, failing to recognise the important skills gaps that skilled foreign workers fill which allow businesses to hire more workers in other parts of their operations which do not suffer the shortages.

The resolve to restrict temporary work visas demonstrated by both Labor and the Coalition government fails to acknowledge that migration is one of the major reasons that Australia has not undergone a recession in the last 20-30 years. They also fail to recognise that, in many cases, employers now need to be globally competitive. To stay afloat in the current climate of globalisation, foreign skilled workers are often necessary to diversify and advance Australian start-ups and corporations.

Exploitation under temporary visas

It is important to note that neither the Coalition nor Labor's approaches to temporary visas are sufficient in protecting temporary migrants from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. To adequately protect temporary visa holders, of which there are currently approximately 1.5 million living in Australia, investment is necessary in compliance and monitoring, and in physical 'policing' of employer sites to identify exploitation and abuse.

Regional worker visas

The Coalition proposes to introduce new skilled worker visas, in the Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) Visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) Visa, for skilled migrants to live and work in regional areas for five years. Adjunct to its 160,000 cap on permanent migrants, these skilled visas cover 23,000 entrants, yet make permanent residency harder to obtain than under the existing scheme, requiring three years' residence in the relevant regions as a precondition to permanent residency. Considering that the usage of regional migration visas has significantly declined since 2012-13, Former Deputy Director of Department of Immigration, Abul Rizvi, has questioned how the Coalition expects demand for its new visas to increase to 23,000, when the rules, in fact, make permanent residency more difficult to obtain. The regional worker visas further risk creating a class of guest-workers in regional areas, providing their skills and labour but unable to live in and contribute to the society long-term. Labor has not released details of any similar scheme.

Humanitarian visas

It is pertinent to briefly contrast the major parties' policies on humanitarian arrivals. Despite its stance of toughening its grip on border protection with the creation of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Coalition has in fact significantly increased Australia's annual humanitarian intake. However, it proposes to cap the intake at 18,750, and freeze the number of humanitarian arrivals for its next term. The Coalition further proposes to increase the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants settled in regional Australia from a target of 30% to 40% for 2019/20. The Coalition's cap can be contrasted with Labor's goal to increase Australia's annual humanitarian intake of refugees to 27,000 by 2025. Labor further proposes to reinstate access to the Refugee Review Tribunal, reinstate the 90-day time limit for deciding a protection visa application; and abolish Temporary Protection Visas, which grant boat arrivals found to be refugees the right to stay in Australia for only three years.

Conclusion

Australia is a multicultural nation, and many of its successes arise from this fact. Moves by both Labor and the Coalition Government to restrict immigration on the basis of populist claims are ignorant to the significant economic and social benefits that immigration has long contributed to Australia, and demonstrate a preference for votes and approbation over contributing positively to Australia's long-term social fabric.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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