Inside Story

The visa that missed its mark

Designed for grandparents wanting to spend time with family in Australia, this new long-stay visa has proved surprisingly unpopular

Peter Mares 2 August 2023 4510 words

Some grandparents are “stuck in permanently temporary limbo,” in the words of home affairs minister Clare O’Neil.

If you’re a parent whose adult children have settled in Australia then your chances of joining them permanently are slim. You can apply, and if you’re lucky you might get a visa by the time your newborn grandchild is a teenager. Or you could die waiting.

Before 1988, grandparents had near-automatic right of entry. Over the next two decades a slow accretion of administrative, regulatory and legislative measures put permanent residency increasingly out of reach. Slowly but surely the focus of Australia’s migration program shifted to working age migrants with useful skills.

That shift might make a certain kind of economic sense, but what does it mean for grandparents who want to live near their Australian-based children and grandchildren but don’t have Australian citizenship? And what are the implications for families who might come to rely on grandparents for all kinds of help yet live in a country that makes permanent residence so difficult?

I began to get a sense of life on a long-stay temporary visa when I called Edward Adams for an interview about his experiences as a British citizen living in Australia. (Many of the names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.) He couldn’t talk because he was busy picking up a grandchild from school, but promised to call back later.

Seventy-two-year-old Edward and his wife Tracey, sixty-four, have lived in Australia for most of their grandchildren’s lives. “We just couldn’t imagine not being here to help in their formative years,” Edward tells me by phone from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast after delivering his grandchild safely home.

Along with school pick-ups and drop-offs two or three times a week, Edward and Tracey step in at short notice to look after the children if son Rory or daughter-in-law Matilda get caught up at work. They also provide extra support when Rory is travelling for business. “And that means our son and daughter in law have been able to be much more productive than they would have been if we weren’t here,” Edward argues.

When not with the grandchildren, the couple have other distractions. They’ve joined the local golf club and made lots of friends. For all intents and purposes, they are settled in Australia, just a short walk away from Rory, Matilda and the grandchildren. Because they aren’t permanent residents or citizens, buying land and building a house required approval from the Federal Investment Review Board. Edward estimates that this added $40,000 to the cost. Since they sold their house in England, their Sunshine Coast house is the only home they have.

Originally from Bath, west of London, Edward and Tracey both retired in 2014. They came to Australia at the end of that year, ahead of Rory and Matilda’s marriage the following March. Although Rory lived in Sydney, the wedding was held on the Sunshine Coast, and Edward and Tracey immediately fell in love with the area. Edward joked that if Rory moved north, then he and Tracey would consider migrating to Australia.

And that’s how it went. Soon after the wedding, Rory’s employer asked him to move and, in 2016, Edward and Tracey came back for a six-month stay on a standard visitor visa. They returned the following year, this time on a twelve-month visa that they were able to renew for a second year by making a short trip to New Zealand.

Edward and Tracey had put money aside — around $100,000 — to apply for permanent residency via contributory parent visas. But they hit the brick wall of the balance of family test. They needed to show that half of their children are Australian citizens or permanent residents — or, if the family is scattered across different countries, then more of their children live in Australia than in any other country.

They have another younger son, Phillip, in England, who doesn’t yet have a family, and if that had been the end of the story they wouldn’t have had a problem. With one son in each country they would meet the threshold having at least half their children settled in Australia.

But Edward has another son, now in his forties, from a previous marriage that ended acrimoniously when Edward’s first son was just two years old. Frequently overseas for work, Edward failed to meet the regular access requirements set down by the court to share custody. He supported his son financially but was otherwise largely absent as a parent. Edward and his first son are only rarely in contact.

The balance of family test is a pure numbers game: it takes no account of the depth or closeness of family bonds. Since Edward has two children in Britain and only one in Australia, the system locks him out, and so it locks Tracey out too. And it counts for nothing that they’ve been emotionally enmeshed in the lives of their three Australian grandchildren since the eldest was a baby, or that they frequently care for them.

In 2019, another option to stay in Australia opened up for Edward and Tracey, when the federal government introduced the sponsored parent (temporary) visa. This visa isn’t subject to the balance of family test and enables parents to live in Australia for up to a decade. In May 2019, Edward and Tracey’s son Rory was among the first to be approved as a sponsor, and in August the couple returned to Bath anticipating a three- to four-month wait. But within a week of submitting their medical checks they were granted visas and in early September they were on a plane to Australia.

“It was very swift,” says Edward. “Our dealings with the immigration department have been very satisfactory.” It came at a stiff price, though, which is part of the reason why this option hasn’t been anywhere near as popular as expected.

If they’d not been tripped up by the balance of family test, Edward and Tracey could have applied for permanent residency by pursuing one of two options. The first is the “contributory” parent visa, which costs at least $47,955 per person. Around 7000 were granted last financial year but 86,000 people are still waiting in the queue. Given the backlog, Home Affairs advises that a new application “may take at least 12 years to process [their emphasis].” The expert panel commissioned by the government to review Australia’s migration program reckons this is an underestimate; it puts the processing time at fifteen years.

The second, non-contributory, parent visa is much cheaper, with charges starting at $4560 per person, and there are “only” 51,000 people currently in the queue. But since far fewer visas are issued each year — just 1500 in 2022–23— the wait is much longer. Home Affairs advises it will take “at least 29 years” for a new application to be processed; the expert review panel warns it’s likely to be more than forty years.

Given the delays, costs and difficulty of getting a permanent visa, and the number of people, like Edward and Tracey, excluded by the balance of family test, you might expect more families to follow their lead in opting for the sponsored parent (temporary) visa. The government anticipated significant demand for the visa when it was introduced in 2019 and capped the program at 15,000 places annually “in recognition of the challenges of an ageing population, as well as the overall budget impact of older migrants.” It need not have worried — by March 2023, almost four years later, only 8204 visas had been issued.

Why has interest been so low?

Covid travel restrictions are part of the equation, but price is also a barrier. A three-year visa costs more than $5000 and a five-year visa more than $10,000. The same fee must be paid again when the visa is renewed — so a ten-year stay will cost $20,000 per person in two upfront payments.

Visaholders must also pay compulsory private medical insurance at about $5000 per year (although at least one big insurer will no longer provide cover for holders of this visa aged over seventy). And families who sponsor a parent must prove that they have a taxable income of at least $83,455.

There’s a sting in the tail, too: parents on this visa are barred from applying to settle permanently either under the contributory or non-contributory options.

Edward and Tracey might not have been able to establish their lives on the Sunshine Coast and watch their grandchildren grow up if it hadn’t been for the efforts of Arvind Duggal. For someone who insists he’s not “political” and just wants “a happy family life” Arvind has had a big impact during two Australian elections when he’s managed to put parent visas on the agenda and influence the policy promises of the Coalition and the Labor Party.

Arvind hails from Jalandhar, a city in Punjab famous for manufacturing cricket bats and other sports equipment. He migrated to Australia with his wife and two-year-old daughter in 2008 without realising he wouldn’t be able to bring his mother to join them. Because he has two older sisters living in India, the balance of family test prevented him from sponsoring his mother to settle in Australia permanently.

Arvind, who was working as a bus driver, discovered that two of his workmates, Parminder Sohal and Davinder Pal Singh, were also dissatisfied with the existing options for bringing parents to Australia. In 2015 the three men launched an online petition to then home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

Despite its far from catchy title — “Introduce Long Stay Visa for Parents Who Want to Spend Quality Time with Their Family”— the petition took flight and eventually attracted close to 30,000 signatures. The non-political Arvind was thrust into the unaccustomed role of activist and advocate. Having started out not even knowing the name of his local MP, before long he was well-versed in the crucial marginal seats where migrant votes might be influential.

Most mainstream media paid little attention, though SBS reported extensively on the issue, especially via its Hindi and Punjabi language services, as did news outlets catering to specific migrant communities. But in the closely fought 2016 federal election Arvind’s petition had the major parties scrambling to outbid each other to offer a new temporary long-stay parent visa.

Labor moved first. Two weeks before the poll opposition leader Bill Shorten promised a renewable three-year visa. At the end of their stay, parents would only have to leave Australia for four weeks and could then return for another three years. This was a big improvement on the existing visitor visa, which offered a maximum stay of just one year and forced parents to leave Australia for at least six months between visits.

Three days later, the Liberal Party trumped Labor by pledging that a re-elected Coalition government would introduce a five-year visa. Both parties would require parents to hold private medical insurance and post a bond to cover any future expense for government services. Labor set the bond at $5000; the Liberals based it on the existing Assurance of Support scheme (between $5000 and $15,000, depending on who sponsors whom and for how long).

The Coalition squeaked home and within months things started moving. The government launched a discussion paper and announced community consultations to help design the new visa, which it “envisaged” would be in place the following year.

Arvind’s supporters were elated. “My heart is in celebration by the chance of having my mum close to me for longer than six months sporadically,” wrote one of them on Facebook. “I cannot express how happy I am for reading this media release… having my mum for at least three years near her only grandchild is a dream… Gosh, I am in tears!!!!!!!”

But it wasn’t until March 2019, just before the next election rolled around, that details were announced. In the slow transition from generous campaign promise to concrete policy the new visa had been hedged about with bureaucratic conditions and high fees.

Arvind still works in transport, though these days he’s a customer service officer. “Peter Dutton betrayed us on his election promise,” he says when we meet for coffee in Adelaide at the end of his shift.

Eight days before the 2016 election, Arvind received a personally addressed email from the Office of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection signed by Mr Dutton’s media advisor. It explained that the promised new visa would require sponsoring families to post a refundable bond “within the existing parameters.” There was no mention of a fee. Yet when details were finally announced in 2019, the application charge was a hefty $5000 for a three-year stay and $10,000 for five years.

The email also reassured Arvind that “the number of visas is not capped.” But when it eventually came to fruition, places in the program were limited to 15,000 annually.

Arvind says the Coalition chose to capitalise on the huge pent-up demand to bring parents to Australia. “It’s like selling a bottle of water in the desert,” he says. “You can choose the price… This is making money from grandparents visiting their grandchildren, which is un-Australian.”

Arvind was also disappointed with three other aspects of the new visa. A family must have a high taxable income to qualify as a sponsor, something not mentioned in the election campaign. It can only sponsor one set of parents. And parents must leave Australia for at least three months to renew their visas. (The email from Mr Dutton’s office said they’d need to leave Australia for “a minimum period of four weeks.”)

As Inside Story reported in the run up to the 2019 election, Labor promised to address some of Arvind’s concerns, saying it would remove the annual cap on the existing temporary long-stay parent visas and slash the fees by 75 per cent. The price of the three-year visa would come down to $1250 and a five-year visa to $2500.

After losing in 2019 Labor felt no need to publicly renew its promises ahead of winning the 2022 election, though Arvind says he was privately assured that an Albanese government would honour its earlier commitments. He’s now concerned that he’s seen no action.

“If Labor fails to deliver then migrant communities will have every reason to lose our faith in the Australian political system” he says. “It’s not setting a good example for our kids who just want family time with their grandparents.”

From the start, Arvind and his bus driver colleagues had modest ambitions for their campaign. All they asked for was an extension of existing visitor arrangements to allow parents to stay for up to three years. He doesn’t see why that should be so hard or cost so much extra.

The campaign has been stressful and taken a toll on family life. “If we didn’t have the balance of family test, I never would have done this,” Arvind says. “Just to get a long-stay visa took seven years.” He’d like to put the issue behind him, but he can’t quite let it go. “It’s not just about me,” he says. “So many people had faith in the campaign. They have worked really hard for it, but ultimately they’ve been very disappointed by the end product.”

Misook and her husband Soejun are also in Australia on long-stay parent visas, but their experience is far less happy than David and Tracey’s. They had no trouble with the balance of family test — their only child is an Australian citizen — and their long-stay visa enabled them to stay here while they endure the long wait for their contributory parent visas to be processed.

Misook and Soejun fall into the category of migrants “stuck in permanently temporary limbo,” in the words of home affairs minister Clare O’Neil. The expert review of Australia’s migration program calculated that 90,000 temporary visa holders have already lived in Australia for more than five years, long enough to “lose their connection with their home countries and become embedded in the Australian community.”

“My husband and I have stayed in Australia, legally, for almost eleven years in the hope of living here permanently and becoming Australian citizens,” Misook says.

The South Korean couple and their eighteen-year-old daughter Eun moved to Australia from Seoul in November 2012. Misook’s employer, a global company, sponsored her on a temporary skilled work visa to fill a vacancy in its Australian operations. She believed she would be able to seek permanent residence after being with the company for a year, only to find that this was out of reach due to her age. Applicants under the Employer Nomination Scheme must be under fifty, and Misook was already fifty-one. A possible exemption applied if Misook could stay with the same firm for four years and earn a salary above a very high threshold, but she had to leave her job in 2015 before meeting that condition.

By this time, Eun was at university. Having failed to meet the requirements for sponsorship, Misook and Soejun looked for other ways to stay in Australia with their only child. Since they were now too old to apply for skilled migration, Soejun got a student visa and went back to study.

By 2017, Eun had qualified as a lawyer, started working and become a citizen. This enabled Misook and Soejun to apply for contributory parent visas. Almost six years later, they are still waiting for a decision. In order to remain in Australia while the process drags on, they spent $20,000 to secure sponsored parent (temporary) visas valid for five years. The couple keep themselves engaged by volunteering for their local council, but Misook is frustrated that the visa conditions prevent them from working even when Australian employers are struggling to find qualified staff.

“Actually, my husband and I are healthy and have skill to work here in Australia, but we can’t work due to the ridiculous visa condition,” she says. “I have been suffering from a financial difficulty to pay all living cost due to the long delay of the visa process.”

Misook says she contributed more than $250,000 in taxes while working for the IT company; Soejun also worked and paid tax, and he and Eun paid thousands more in fees to study as international students. Yet they can’t use Medicare or any other government services. With their long-stay visas expiring in December 2024, the family’s anxiety and uncertainty grows.

Despite their generally positive experience, Edward says he and Tracey also have some concerns. The reality that their five-year visas expire in September 2024 is starting to weigh on their minds, and they are preoccupied with securing a second five-year stay. Their biggest worry is that they’ll be forced to leave Australia for at least three months to do so. Once processing times are added in, Edward reckons they could be away from their grandchildren for up to nine months, interrupting those close relationships and disrupting the lives of their son and daughter-in-law, who rely on help with childcare to manage busy professional lives.

Then there’s the cost. Since they have no home to go back to in England, Edward calculates they could be out of pocket $50,000 in accommodation and airfares.

“That’s money that would otherwise be spent here in Australia,” he says, noting that some of it would probably go to Rory and Matilda and their young family to help them weather rising prices and increasing mortgage repayments. “Most grandparents offer financial support to their families especially during today’s worldwide recession,” he says. “I don’t see any downside for the government in allowing us to apply onshore and granting us a bridging visa while our application is processed.”

Edward’s other concern is that he and Tracey won’t be eligible for travel insurance for the journey because they don’t hold Australian visas extending beyond the period of their trip. And once they’re in Britain they face a catch-22: because they’ve been away from that country for more than three months and are no longer considered residents, they can’t access the National Health Service unless they are returning permanently.

Edward has learned from Facebook that some three-year visa holders have been granted a waiver to apply for a renewal onshore because their presence in Australia is vital to enabling their adult children to stay in the workforce. But he’s unsure whether the rules were only relaxed because of Covid travel restrictions and fears he and Tracey may not get the same dispensation.

The rules appear clear cut. The Home Affairs website says permission to apply onshore “may” be approved if the parent is unable to depart Australia due to accident, serious illness or a disaster in the home country, but will not be approved because leaving Australia is inconvenient or the applicant has “sold assets in their home country”.

A letter to immigration minister Andrew Giles from Edward’s local MP brought no joy. The minister fobbed the inquiry off by referring to mandatory conditions applied to temporary visas under the migration regulations. But with its long duration, Edward thinks the sponsored parent (temporary) visa is in a different category to other temporary visas and doesn’t understand why it can’t be renewed in Australia.

“If we applied onshore and were granted the visa it’s not like we’re gaining any extra time on the ten-year limit,” he says.

The reasons for preventing subclass 870 visa holders from applying for a new visa onshore are opaque. It could be a manifestation of the “Genuine Temporary Entry requirement” — a demonstration that temporary parent migrants like Edward and Tracey still have a life elsewhere and aren’t trying to settle permanently. But given that the visa allows a ten-year stay, this is an absurd piece of bureaucratic rigamarole. Perhaps, as one government insider told me privately, “it’s just a very poorly designed visa.”

I have had serious reservations about the sponsored parent (temporary) visa from the outset. When it was first promised at the 2016 election, I described it for Inside Story as Claytons immigration, a reference to the faux whisky marketed in Australia in the 1970s with the tagline “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink.”

The visa offers neither permanent settlement nor a truly temporary stay. It’s a messy political compromise cooked up to appease migrant communities in marginal electorates.

The influence of the “ethnic vote” is not a new phenomenon. Historian Rachel Stevens records that Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government relaxed the requirements for family migration in its second term in “a pragmatic move designed to gain electoral votes from naturalized southern European migrants.” In the 1980s, Labor supported family migration for the same reason. Stevens cites veteran political journalist Michelle Grattan’s view that “without the southern European vote, the ALP would have lost the 1987 federal election by 2 per cent.”

Yet campaign-driven appeals to specific voters in marginal electorates rarely produce well thought out policy. The sponsored parent (temporary) parent visa is a good example. Designed to appeal to overseas born voters in key seats, it is likely to launch chickens that will come home to roost on some future minister’s desk.

What happens, at the end of a ten-year visa, if a parent has become too frail to return to their homeland, or if they no longer have the family or community supports to sustain them there? Human lives are messy and complicated and tend to explode administrative systems and rules, no matter how detailed and prescriptive. In fact, we already see stories like this, because of the absurd processing delays for permanent parent visa.

In 2020, SBS reported that ninety-eight-year-old grandmother Esmeralda Rosario was facing deportation to India after living in Australia on a bridging visa for twelve years. She had arrived on a tourist visa and then applied for an aged parent visa. In 2019 her application was refused because, unsurprisingly, the nonagenarian failed to meet the health requirement and her care was judged likely to impose significant costs on the Australian community.

SBS also documented the similar case of 93-year-old Mollie Manley. She had been living in Australia on a bridging visa for eleven years when her application for permanent residence was refused. The great grandmother had passed all relevant medical tests when she first arrived in Australia, but by the time her application was assessed she was blind and in aged care. She too was slated as a potential burden on the healthcare system.

Cases like these generally end up in drawn-out appeals before they finally land on the desk of the immigration minister with a request to intervene and grant a visa on compassionate grounds. The minister’s public interest powers can only be exercised after every administrative and legal avenue has been exhausted — a stressful, expensive and inefficient process that takes years.

Plenty of similar cases are yet to come. In March 2023, 17,223 parents were living in Australia on bridging visas — a subset of the 137,000 parents in the combined queue for contributory and non-contributory visas. Most of those people will either die waiting for a decision or end up being rejected because they have become too old and frail to meet Australia’s health requirements.

In 2016, I warned that a long stay parent visa could attract a lot of elderly migrants to Australia. At the time, there were already 80,0000 applicants queuing up for permanent visas, and I figured demand would be significantly higher after factoring in people who were put off applying by the cost or the endless delays for a permanent visa, plus those like Arvind’s mother and Edward who had been excluded by the balance-of-family test.

When the Labor opposition promised to remove the cap on numbers and slash the visa fee, the same concerns re-emerged. Migration expert Bob Birrell predicted “at least 200,000 parent applications” in three years if Labor won government. Demographer Peter McDonald estimated that up to two million families could be interested in sponsoring a parent.

So far, the sponsored parent (temporary) visa hasn’t proved anywhere near that popular, and not because the cap of 15,000 places remained in place or because Covid has interrupted travel plans. The likely reason is that the visa is cumbersome and expensive. But the government would be wise to tread carefully in reforming it. If it was cheaper and easier to access, then the ten-year visa may well become as widely used as Birrell and McDonald suggested, and that would invite a range of unintended consequences.

The Clayton’s approach to migration satisfies nobody and simply defers difficult choices. The government should have the courage of its convictions and either commit to parents being considered “close family” with a near automatic right to join their children in Australia, or say, no, sorry, such a policy is not acceptable to most Australian voters and the best we can offer is a genuinely temporary stay of shorter duration. •

This article is adapted from The Parent Conundrum, a narrative exploring Australia’s troubled approach to parent migration commissioned by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, although the views expressed should not be taken represent its views.