The federal government is preparing to make fundamental changes to Australia’s visa system that will make the pathway from migrant to citizen more protracted and uncertain. That, at least, is the message in a Department of Social Services cabinet-in-confidence memo leaked to Fairfax media in late November. Key details remain unclear, but the proposal risks endangering social cohesion and undermining Australia’s successful history of citizenship-based multiculturalism. It also reflects worrying changes in the role and purpose of the immigration department over the past three years.
One of the Abbott government’s first acts was to transform the Department of Immigration and Citizenship into the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, or DIBP, and transfer the social and cultural functions of migration policy to the Department of Social Services, or DSS. At a stroke, social cohesion, settlement and multiculturalism were jettisoned as priorities, stripping one of Australia’s great nation-building institutions of essential elements of migration policy. In its place stands an organisation dedicated to facilitating the orderly movement of people across a line on the map.
While it was hard to miss the creation of Operation Sovereign Borders, fewer people are aware of other major changes to Australian migration, including a significant increase in visa cancellations under new “character” provisions in the Migration Act, and tighter restrictions on information under the Australian Border Force Act. The rules preventing medical professionals from speaking publicly about their experiences working in detention centres might have been relaxed, but DIBP’s default position is to withhold information even about such uncontroversial matters as the postcodes where working holiday makers are employed. Social and cultural goals have been reduced to mere by-products of the department’s focus on security, and the potential consequences for new migrants and for Australian residents and citizens shouldn’t be underestimated.
The leaked memo suggests that DSS, at least, is aware of the implications. Discussing DIBP’s proposed changes to visa policy and the introduction of a new provisional visa, senior DSS officials noted the potential for “increased marginalisation of migrants,” the “undermining of social cohesion” and “adverse impacts on integration.”
Our reading of the leaked document and recent media reports suggests that the government may be trying to introduce an extra “provisional” step into the migration process. Currently, migrants either are permanent residents on arrival, or make the transition from temporary to permanent status over time. Permanent residence status provides access to government payments and services and is a necessary stepping stone to citizenship. The DSS documents suggest the government wants to introduce a new provisional visa status that leaves migrants outside “the social welfare safety net” and subject to “an additional payment waiting period” before they can access public support.
Permanent migrants already have to wait four years to move from permanent residency to citizenship and two years to get most kinds of government welfare benefits. A new provisional category, sitting between temporary and permanent residency status, would further prolong the process of becoming a full member of Australian society.
This new provisional status could apply to humanitarian migrants (resettled refugees) as well as to skilled and family migrants, and it appears that migrants wanting to move from provisional to permanent status will have to demonstrate their values and suitability. We can only assume from the leaked documents that this would be done through some kind of test (like the citizenship test, which would come at the next stage). As the DSS memo comments, “It is not clear that integration testing as proposed will lead to improved understanding of and adherence to Australian values, improved integration into Australian society, or to improved social cohesion outcomes.” Such reservations are well founded: tests of values and attitudes are notoriously unreliable and easily gamed; they are less likely to identify migrants who are unwilling to integrate than to marginalise migrants who want to.
The proposal shows what happens when the selection of migrants is divorced from what happens after they arrive in Australia, especially when responsibility for settlement services is spread across government departments. Social networks, and the economic contribution, cultural integration and knowledge dispersal of migrants, are of utmost importance. This is where we need to focus, instead of introducing another set of regulations that could act as barriers to the transition from migrant to Australian.
The leaked memo refers to discussion about the proposed changes at cabinet’s national security committee in March, the first time a wholesale rewrite of visa policy has started at that committee. Beyond that committee, any public discussion or consultation has been notably absent. The proposed changes are said to arise from a 2014 departmental inquiry into visa simplification – which did involve consultation – but the only mention of a provisional visa in its proposal paper refers to a narrow category of business and investment visas.
It isn’t hard to connect the dots to the recently established parliamentary inquiry into migrant settlement outcomes, which was announced in a media release about the threat to society posed by “youth migrants and gangs.” With a government majority, that committee could well produce a report calling for fundamental changes to the system, including provisional visas, additional character requirements for the transition to citizenship, and stricter welfare penalties. This would effectively rubber stamp the proposals referred to in the leaked DSS documents.
A focus on what could go wrong rather than on the opportunities created by migration is slowly eroding our global standing as one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. We also risk reverting to a guest-worker society, like postwar Germany, Belgium or Switzerland, countries that now face great challenges in the economic and educational integration of their migrant populations.
The proposed visa threatens the migration and citizenship traditions that helped create modern Australia. It is another addition to the arsenal of recent public policy reforms that says to a new migrant, “You are different, and will be treated differently.” •