In an unexpected victory, Scott Morrison’s Coalition government has secured a further term in power, promising problematic and populist immigration policies which place little value on the economic and social benefits that immigration brings to Australia. This update considers the main issues inherent in the Coalition’s immigration policies, ultimately advocating for significant refinement and reform.
Cap on immigration
In executing its National Population Plan, the Coalition will cap permanent migration at 160,000 for the next four years, down from 190,000. Not only does this fail to recognise that temporary visas are in fact the greatest contributors to population growth, but this proposal is also incongruent with the Coalition’s declarations that it will generate Australia’s first budget surplus in 12 years. A robust program of immigration has been one of the most significant factors in sustaining Australia’s economy over the last three decades, and is one of the main reasons that Australia has enjoyed 27 years recession-free. Economic data put forward to enable the return to a surplus would require the highest immigration numbers ever; the Coalition’s proposals to reduce the immigration cap thus conflict with attaining its alleged surplus, and shake confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises and maintain a stable economy.
Regional visa proposals
23,000 new skilled regional visas will be available from November 2019. In the form of the Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) Visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) Visa, these visas propose to lessen pressure on cities through supporting skilled migrants to live and work in regional areas for five years. In contrast to the present scheme, the new visas make permanent residency (PR) harder to obtain, requiring three years’ residence in the relevant regions as a precondition to PR. 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 PR more difficult to secure.
The Coalition’s proposed skilled regional visas have been further criticised for their lack of ‘stickability’; that is, they are unlikely to attract migrants to stay in regional areas long-term. Indeed, many regional areas covered by the new visas have high levels of unemployment, poor infrastructure and no settlement services, significantly deterring engagement with the scheme. Regional Australian Institute co-chief executive officer Kim Houghten has reported that the most successful regional migration programs have been those which partner towns with a ‘matchmaker’ in urban migrant communities, encouraging migrants to move regionally of their own volition. The crude and forced nature of the Coalition’s regional visa scheme stands in sharp contrast to such successes, undermining the goals it seeks to achieve.
In response to the difficulties faced by businesses in regional and remote areas to sponsor the overseas workers they need, the Coalition has introduced Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs). DAMAs lower the criteria for skills, language, and income for migrant workers, whilst providing new pathways to obtaining PR after living in the relevant region for three years. This scheme has been hailed as providing flexible solutions to economic and labour market needs in regional areas, whilst providing employers with better access to overseas workers. The DAMA scheme is, however, both complex and time-consuming, requiring the enactment of an overarching deed of agreement between the Australian government and a Designated Area Representative; as well as individual agreements between employers and the Australian government. Employers who wish to apply for access to a DAMA must request an endorsement from the relevant region; make an application with the Department of Home Affairs; and only then, once approved, may submit a subclass 482 Temporary Skills Shortage nomination and visa application. The convolution of this scheme has seen very few applications processed, and only a handful of regions have DAMAs in place. Time will tell whether this scheme will fill the significant gaps present in regional areas, or provide little more than an overcomplicated and underutilised bureaucratic procedure.
Global talent visas
The Global Talent Scheme (GTS) was introduced on 1 July 2018 as a 12-month pilot scheme under the Temporary Skill Shortage visa program. The GTS purports to allow employers to sponsor overseas workers in highly-skilled positions that cannot be filled by Australian workers or through other standard visa programs, enabling startups and companies to bring highly-skilled talent to Australia for four years, rather than two. In the current climate of globalisation, a scheme such as the GTS is vital for startups to access the global talent pool in order to advance and compete on a global scale. However, a freedom of information request lodged by Hannan Tew revealed that the GTS is largely inaccessible and unattainable by startups. Only eight visa applications have been granted through the scheme; yet not one startup company has applied for or been granted a visa. This is attributable to the significant costs associated with the GTS. Costs of lodging an application and paying the Skilling Australians levy can be between $7,000 and $10,000, which are entirely unfeasible for many startups. The Coalition alleges that the GTS will be refined in consultation with industry at the pilot’s conclusion in July 2019. Unless the scheme pays heed to its failings and provides concessions for startups and businesses below a certain income threshold, Australia will struggle to attract overseas talent and compete globally in such booming industries as tech and innovation.
The government is legally obliged to administer spouse visas on a demand-driven basis. Nonetheless, the Coalition government continues to abuse its powers in granting partner visas, having accumulated a backlog of over 80,000 partner visa applications, yet allocating only 39,799 places for partners in 2019-20. Abul Rizvi has emphasised that it is unlawful for the government to cap partner processing, with the accruing backlog of partner visa applications unsustainable when met with further restrictions on the number of available places. Rizvi has predicted a legal challenge to eventually arise in response to the Coalition’s dealings with partner visas, which will present a significant and unnecessary waste of public funds and resources which could be better spent in obliging with the law through efficiently processing partner visa applications.
The Coalition has repeatedly displayed flagrant ignorance to the vitality of immigration to Australia: a vastly multicultural society long-buoyed both economically and socially by strong immigration schemes. Scott Morrison’s Coalition government offers unsustainable and ineffective policies even when acknowledging the necessity of immigration in regional areas; whilst failing to provide adequate options for startups to attract global talent, and betraying the public in its crude handling of partner visas. Without significant refinement and reform, the Coalition’s ill-conceived immigration policies threaten to destabilise its predicted budget surplus and undermine Australia’s growth.
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