Inside Story

Is migration heading “back to normal”?

The government has outlined its vision for skilled migration but it still has lots of colouring in to do

Peter Mares 16 December 2023 2895 words

Back to normal? Home affairs minister Clare O’Neil. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Recent press coverage of migration hasn’t been good for the federal government. The High Court’s ruling on indefinite detention confirmed the principle that prisoners should generally be released after serving their time, but attempts to explain it were drowned out by opportunistic politicians and compliant journalists.

Then there was the unexpected jump in numbers. Net overseas migration for the 2022–23 financial year hit a record 510,000 people, more than 25 per cent above the 400,000 anticipated in the May budget and more than double the October 2022 forecast of 235,000. Not only are more people arriving but fewer are leaving, especially students; the catch-up after Covid means many international students are still in the early stages of their courses and won’t return home for two or three more years.

Combined with the shenanigans of sacked former home affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, these developments have made it easy for the opposition to conjure up an image of out-of-control migration and link this to housing shortages and other pressing issues. Immigration isn’t the cause of a housing crisis decades in the making, but the surge in arrivals does make a tight rental market even worse.

Arrival numbers would have been no lower under a Coalition government and Australia’s population would be higher if not for Covid. But facts count for little in an overheated debate. Migration is now Labor’s problem and it would be easy to construe the release of its new strategy as an attempt to wrest back the initiative on this fraught topic.

But the strategy is no knee-jerk response. It is the product of months of work, building on an expert panel’s finding that the migration program is “broken” and a report by former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon confirming widespread abuse of Australia’s visa system.

The strategy adds detail to the government’s early responses to those two reviews and affirms its commitment to keeping both unions and business onside. It shows a government aspiring to wholesale reform rather than bolting yet more fixes onto an already unwieldly, overloaded and outdated migration machine.

In its existing form, the system satisfies no one. Employers and migrants complain about high costs, slow processing and uncertain outcomes, while the public questions the scale and integrity of the program. In their joint foreword to the strategy, the responsible ministers, Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles, recognise the need to restore migration’s “social license.”

The strategy articulates four policy objectives, and while they are not ranked, the tone and content of the strategy indicate a descending order of priority. Migration, it says, should first, raise living standards; second, ensure a fair go in the workplace; third, build stronger communities; and fourth, strengthen international relationships.

To achieve the primary aim of higher living standards the government wants to refine migration to boost productivity, counter the perceived impacts of an ageing population, fill skills gaps and expand exports.

One step is to reform the points test, which scores and ranks applicants for permanent skilled migration according to their age, qualifications, experience and English language proficiency. A discussion paper will canvass options that are likely to give greater weight to the skills and qualifications of an applicant’s partner and downgrade factors that are “poor predictors” of labour market success, such as studying in a regional area and fluency in a community language. The aim is to reward skill over “perseverance” so that international student graduates working in their professional fields have a faster route to settlement while graduates stuck in lower-level jobs are screened out and leave Australia.

Another measure introduces a “skills in demand” visa to replace the “temporary skills shortage” visa. This is more than a name change. The government had already lifted the threshold wage for temporary skilled migrants from $53,900 to $70,000 to ensure that these visas are not used to recruit cheap labour. (The threshold, frozen since 2013, will now be indexed annually.) New rules allow temporary migrants to switch employers and sectors more easily, which should improve productivity as these workers move to jobs where their skills are more highly valued.

Labour market testing will be simplified, employers can pay sponsorship fees periodically instead of up front, and visas will be issued more swiftly, with the government committing to a median processing time of just seven days for applicants in the top “specialist skills pathway.” This applies to workers earning at least $135,000, who will no longer have to match one of the occupations in demand identified by Jobs and Skills Australia (though the category is closed to trade workers, machinery operators, drivers and labourers).

Workers paid between $70,000 and $135,000 are on the “core skills pathway” and must still have an occupation identified as being in shortage, with a promise that these lists will be updated more frequently to better reflect rapidly changing labour market needs. Both the core and specialist pathways will offer a route to permanent residency.

The details of a third “essential skills” pathway are yet to be worked out. This option will apply to lower-paid, hard-to-fill jobs with a focus on the care economy. The government says it will “further consult” on lower-wage migration next year, but any arrangements will be sector-specific, capped in size, closely regulated and designed to maintain the primacy of Australia’s relationship to the Pacific as “a guiding principle.”

The latter is a reference to objective four of the strategy — strengthening international relationships — and we can expect further development of PALM, the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which has its genesis in a seasonal labour program for workers from Pacific island nations and Timor-Leste. Only 3000 Pacific islanders were working seasonally in Australia in 2016, but by October 2023 there were more than 38,000 PALM participants. The original scheme was broadened from horticulture to meat processing and other agricultural industries, and then extended to encompass tourism, hospitality, retail and care. It is mostly limited to regional and rural areas, but is no longer just seasonal, with workers granted visas for between one and four years.

But the scheme remains purely temporary, with no path to permanent residency. Pacific workers can bid for one of 3000 new Pacific Engagement Visas offered annually, but success is a matter of luck. Former top immigration official Abul Rizvi has highlighted a sharp rise in PALM workers applying for protection as refugees and attributes this to dissatisfaction with their treatment in Australia. He says the “silliness” of the Pacific visa lottery will just add to PALM workers’ frustrations and suggests the government should instead help them “develop higher level skills as a pathway to permanent residence, especially skills relevant to the regional communities in which they are currently working.”

Rizvi’s sensible suggestion points to an enduring dilemma of low-skilled migration. Once workers secure permanent residency they tend to quit poorly paid jobs in remote locations and move to better-paid positions in cities. Keeping migrants on temporary visas limits their labour market mobility and ensures they stay put, but it’s a recipe for disaffection and exploitation.

The structure of the PALM scheme runs counter to the second major policy objective in the new migration strategy, “ensuring a fair go in the workplace.” By allowing temporary skilled migrants to shift jobs more easily, the government has increased their power to challenge underpayment and resist unreasonable demands. Temporary skilled migrants who suffer abuse will have six months instead of two to find an alternative sponsor and be less reliant on any single employer to support their applications for permanent residence. The contrast with the purely temporary PALM scheme that ties workers to specific employers and regions is stark.

To tackle abuse, the government has introduced a bill to make it a criminal offence for employers to misuse visa programs to exploit temporary migrant workers. This recommendation by Allan Fels’s 2019 Migrant Workers’ Taskforce was ignored by the previous government.

The idea of a “fair go” also has a domestic element. The government wants to ensure that migrants don’t displace local workers or bring down their wages. Its primary move here is to tighten entry requirements for international students to ensure that their main intention is to study, not work. The strategy erroneously calls this closing “back doors and side doors” when, in reality, Australia opened the front door wide to support the growth of education for export; unsurprisingly, international students walked through in large numbers.

New barriers are being erected. International students must pass a higher English language test and prove they have significantly more savings. They will find it harder to switch from one course to another, especially if they appear to be going backwards — by, for example, swapping from a degree to a certificate-level course. The government will prioritise visa processing based on the “risk level” of educational institutions. Applications to study at top-tier universities will sail through while visas to attend private colleges languish in the bureaucratic pipeline.

The Australian Skills Quality Authority will also have extra funding to crack down on ghost colleges, those dodgy providers that are shopfronts for obtaining a visa with work rights.

Evidence of a more stringent approach is already apparent. In 2018–19, the last full year of Coalition government before Covid, only 13 per cent of student visa applications lodged outside Australia were rejected. In 2022–23 (the first full year of a Labor administration) 20 per cent were knocked back. The change was especially pronounced in offshore VET applications, where average rejection rates grew from 38 per cent under the Coalition to 46 per cent under Labor. The perception that Dutton was tougher on border control than his successor as home affairs minister doesn’t match reality.

Labor is also winding back generous post-study work visas, which the Morrison government made even more attractive in late 2021 to help international education “roar back” after Covid. Visas will be shorter: three years instead of four for a PhD and two years instead of three for coursework masters. The eligible age limit will be reduced from fifty to thirty-five years.

When the Gillard government introduced the 485 post-study work visa a decade ago, some of us warned that it would produce a large new cohort of “permanently temporary” graduates — migrants living and working in Australia for years without any prospect of settling. This has come to pass. Of the almost 200,000 temporary graduate visa holders in Australia, most are stuck in limbo. They struggle to find jobs in line with their qualifications and do low-skill work that will never enable them to amass the points needed to qualify as skilled migrants. It makes sense to rein the scheme in.

Over time, these measures could see international student and graduate numbers decline further than they would have, which may reduce the pool of casualised and precarious labour staffing kitchens and delivering meals. On the other hand, the government has reinstated restrictions on working hours lifted during the pandemic. Students can work a maximum of forty-eight hours each fortnight, up from forty hours pre-Covid. Some will need to work more “off the books” to make ends meet, making them vulnerable to ruthless employers.

The government will also evaluate another visa category rife with wage theft, poor working conditions and sexual harassment — working holiday visas — which have morphed from a cultural exchange program into a low-wage labour scheme, especially for agriculture. The scale of abuse has repeatedly been documented over the past decade, and it’s hard to see how the program can be rehabilitated short of scrapping the second and third visas backpackers can acquire if they complete three or six months of “specified work” in regional Australia. As with the PALM scheme, linking work and visas makes young travellers beholden to employers, often in remote towns and isolated workplaces. The PALM scheme is, at least, more closely regulated.

Improved conditions for student workers and backpackers would be a significant achievement and help to restore public faith in the migration program, even if we had to pay more for our food and collect our own takeaway. Whether the proposed measures can achieve this is an open question, but Labor is at least demonstrating a level of intent that was absent under the Coalition. In the words of former senior public servant Martin Parkinson, who chaired the expert review, the migration system has suffered “a decade of almost wilful neglect.”

The government hopes to meet the third objective of the migration strategy, “building stronger communities,” by shifting the emphasis from temporary to permanent migration and providing greater clarity about who can (or can’t) hope to settle here.

The commonsense implication is that permanent migration is more conducive to building “a cohesive multicultural society.” But the strategy is silent on family migration, apart from the strange formulation that the government will support “relationships with family abroad.” That doesn’t sound promising for overseas-born Australians who want to bring parents here to live with them. Parent migration could build stronger communities but clearly runs counter to the higher-priority goals of boosting productivity, filling skills shortages and slowing demographic ageing.

The conundrum of parent visas has been left to fester so long that the shocking blow-out in applications and waiting times means many parents are likely to die before they get a visa. This is causing distress and anxiety for tens of thousands of families.

One immediate option would be to suspend new applications pending a review of the system, just as Canada did in 2011. This would halt the growth in the waiting list and buy time to figure out what to do while working through the backlog. It is cruel to keep applications open and foster false hopes.

The migration strategy draws quite a clear outline of the government’s vision for skilled migration, even if there is lots of colouring in to do. When it comes to family migration, though, the page remains virtually blank, and the government is still “exploring” what visa settings are “appropriate.”

To support all four objectives, the migration strategy promises to make the system easier to navigate and administer. This entails, among other things, merging or closing some of the one hundred “visa products” to simplify offerings, as well as adding extra staff and upgrading IT systems.

The challenge will be to find a balance between the clear regulations and procedures needed to process a high volume of visas efficiently, on the one hand, and retaining enough flexibility to fit individual circumstances, especially in compassionate cases, on the other. Whenever the migration system re-gears, some people get chewed up, including many with compelling reasons to stay in Australia. Foreign parents of Australian-citizen children, for example, will often cycle through a series of temporary visas in a desperate bid to stay close to their sons or daughters. This will get harder as visa rules tighten. It would be ironic and disappointing if attempts to streamline migration mean even more decisions landing in the lap of the immigration minister in the form of last-ditch appeals for him to exercise discretion under various “god powers.”

The strategy is pitched as a bid to get migration working for the nation: “For workers. For businesses. For all Australians.” Noticeably absent from this top-line list is a desire to get migration working for migrants. The strategy (and the ministers’ language promoting it) tends to present migrants, especially student visa holders, as highly calculating and instrumental — as people who use “back doors and side doors” to milk the system for whatever they can get or even engage in outright rorts.

What gets forgotten is that circumstances and aspirations change, especially for young adults at a formative stage of life. Students may come to Australia with every intention of leaving when they complete their courses but then discover new freedoms and possibilities that were not previously available to them. Perhaps they can openly express their sexuality, their creativity or their politics for the first time. Perhaps they find a new vocation or meet the love of their life.

Yet the strategy essentially tells young temporary migrants: please come to Australia for a few years but don’t put down any roots, or even put out feelers, unless you are pursuing an occupation in demand and can help build Australia’s economy. Not only is this unrealistic, it also shows we might be the ones who are calculating and instrumental.

As long as we rely on international students to fund our higher education system and backpackers to pick our produce, temporary migration will continue at a high level. The least we can do is be honest with temporary visa holders about their limited prospects for building a life in Australia, and the new strategy points in that direction. Yet we should recognise that this might inflict an emotional and psychological toll.

In their foreword to the migration strategy, the immigration and home affairs ministers say they want to bring migration levels “back to normal.” It’s not clear what might constitute “normal” in 2024, but a better-targeted and more efficient system would certainly be an achievement, especially if it offers greater clarity and certainty, reins in workplace exploitation, and reduces the number of migrants who are rendered permanently temporary and stuck in a state of being not quite Australian. What it won’t do is resolve the practical and ethical challenges that arise when the number of migrants coming to Australia on temporary visas is so much greater than the number who can hope to settle here. •