Australia's im­mi­gra­tion rate to fall again as work visa ap­provals drop

The Guardian Australia - - Politics - Ben Do­herty

Australia’s mi­grant in­take will be sub­stan­tially down this fi­nan­cial year – pos­si­bly 25,000 be­low the 190,000 planned fig­ure – led by re­duc­tions in the num­ber of skilled and spon­sored work­ing visas.

The mi­gra­tion pro­gram has been at 190,000 since 2012-13 but dropped to 183,000 last fi­nan­cial year and will fall fur­ther again this year.

Fig­ures dis­closed at Se­nate es­ti­mates and visa sta­tis­tics ob­tained by Guardian Australia un­der freedom of in­for­ma­tion re­veal the num­ber of visas granted in 2017-18 is likely to be 165,000 – the low­est level in seven years.

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To 30 April this year the Aus­tralian govern­ment had granted 138,086 per­ma­nent visas di­vided broadly into two-thirds skilled, onethird fam­ily (and ex­clud­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian visas, which sit out­side the mi­gra­tion pro­gram fig­ure).

“It’s prob­a­bly down on where we were this time last year,” a first as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for the De­part­ment of Home Af­fairs de­part­ment, Chris­tine Dacey, told es­ti­mates last month.

Ex­trap­o­lated to the full year ending 30 June, it ap­pears likely about 165,000 mi­gra­tion visas will be granted.

The FoI fig­ures ob­tained for the first six months of the 2017-18 fi­nan­cial year show a 15% drop in the num­ber of per­ma­nent visas granted, from 92,477 to 78,190.

Com­par­ing the first six months of the 2016-17 fi­nan­cial year with the first six months of the 2017-18 year, the fig­ures show sub­stan­tial falls across most visa cat­e­gories, but most par­tic­u­larly among skilled in­de­pen­dent and em­ployer-spon­sored work visas.

The num­ber of em­ployer-spon­sored visas fell from 22,843 to 16,047, driven largely by changes to the 457 visa regime.

Skilled in­de­pen­dent visas of­fi­cially fell from 24,289 to 20,989. This large head­line fall masks a sig­nif­i­cant change in the makeup of the pro­gram. A deal struck be­tween Can­berra and Wellington now en­ables some New Zealan­ders who have lived and worked in Australia for five years to ap­ply for per­ma­nent res­i­dency, and a path­way to ci­ti­zen­ship.

These are likely to dis­place thou­sands of other skilled mi­grants who might oth­er­wise have been granted a per­ma­nent visa in the mi­gra­tion in­take. Fig­ures re­leased in April show more than 9,000 New Zealan­ders have ap­plied to take up this op­tion.

Fewer mi­grants were spon­sored by states, ter­ri­to­ries and re­gions, while busi­ness in­no­va­tion and in­vest­ment visas (for peo­ple start­ing a busi­ness in Australia) were largely un­changed.

The planned mi­gra­tion pro­gram fig­ure for the 2018-19 fi­nan­cial year is again 190,000, the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive year at that level.

But that fig­ure has un­der­gone a sub­tle but sig­nif­i­cant shift as de­bate has restarted about the size and shape of Australia’s mi­gra­tion pro­gram and fu­ture pop­u­la­tion.

Pre­vi­ously, within the im­mi­gra­tion de­part­ment (which is now part of home af­fairs), the mi­gra­tion pro­gram fig­ure was al­ways re­ferred to as a “tar­get” or “plan­ning level”, never a “ceil­ing”, a for­mer immi-

gra­tion deputy sec­re­tary, Abul Rizvi, wrote in In­side Story.

But in May the sec­re­tary of the De­part­ment of Home Af­fairs, Mike Pez­zullo, told es­ti­mates a change had taken place within govern­ment sev­eral years ago, “to en­sure that the per­ma­nent pro­gram was man­aged, not as a tar­get … but to treat the pro­gram as a ceil­ing”.

Me­dia re­ports have sug­gested that cab­i­net this year dis­cussed low­er­ing the planned mi­gra­tion fig­ure by 20,000 but that it was re­jected. Min­is­ters have var­i­ously de­nied that the fig­ure was de­bated, or stated that de­bate over the size of Australia’s mi­gra­tion pro­gram was part of reg­u­lar dis­cus­sions within govern­ment.

The home af­fairs min­is­ter, Peter Dut­ton, has said the govern­ment al­ready had, and would re­duce mi­grant num­bers “where we be­lieve it’s in our na­tional in­ter­est”, cit­ing traf­fic grid­lock and un­af­ford­able hous­ing in cities. But he also said he sup­ported im­mi­gra­tion at its cur­rent lev­els.

While is­sues around choked roads, strains on schools, hos­pi­tals and other in­fra­struc­ture, and house prices are po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive for the govern­ment, mi­gra­tion adds an es­ti­mated 1% to Australia’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct ev­ery year, Trea­sury mod­el­ling in­di­cates, be­cause it coun­ters Australia’s age­ing pop­u­la­tion (mi­grants tend to be younger than the av­er­age Aus­tralian).

There is sig­nif­i­cant back­bench ag­i­ta­tion for a re­duc­tion in per­ma­nent mi­grants com­ing to Australia. The for­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott has called for a re­duc­tion in mi­gra­tion lev­els to those seen un­der John Howard.

But Australia’s mi­gra­tion pro­gram boomed un­der Howard. The per­ma­nent mi­gra­tion in­take in­creased from about 70,000 to 150,000 an­nu­ally, and there was a dra­matic rise in the num­ber of tem­po­rary mi­grants, mainly skilled work­ers and in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

Over the past two decades the coun­try of origin for most mi­grants to Australia has shifted from places like the UK and South Africa, to China and In­dia.

A 2016 Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion re­port pre­dicted the pop­u­la­tion would reach 40 mil­lion by 2060, and ar­gued the fu­ture size of Australia would be largely de­ter­mined by the coun­try’s mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

“In the ab­sence of a for­mal pop­u­la­tion pol­icy, Australia’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy is its de facto pop­u­la­tion pol­icy. As such, im­mi­gra­tion has broad-rang­ing and en­dur­ing im­pli­ca­tions for the econ­omy, so­ci­ety and the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Since about 2005 mi­gra­tion has been a larger driver of pop­u­la­tion in­crease than babies be­ing born in Australia. Mi­gra­tion now ac­counts for about 60% of Australia’s pop­u­la­tion in­crease.

On 13 June 2018 this ar­ti­cle was amended to more ac­cu­rately clar­ify the sta­tus of New Zealand visa hold­ers in Australia.

Pho­to­graph: LuapVi­sion/Getty Im­ages/iStockphoto

Australia planned to take 190,000 mi­grants this fi­nan­cial year but will likely end up with just 165,000. Last year the ac­tual num­ber was 183,000 from a planned 190,000.

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