The changing face of Australian immigration

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 18 months, you would have noticed that there has been a momentous shift in attitude as to the way that Australia views those people looking to secure a new life in our great country.

Recent media on intervention on visas for two au pairs, by Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, has highlighted the inequities that appear to be becoming the norm throughout many areas of the Australian immigration program.

Australian companies are being penalised financially and starved from crucial resources in the form of skilled and experienced overseas foreign nationals that will contribute to business growth and increased competition.

This shift in policy has several intended and unintended consequences for Australia’s competitive position on the global stage, with a number of companies opting to outsource certain roles to countries outside of our borders.

Significant fee increases, introduction of levies, painfully long processing times and reduction in resources appear to part in parcel of a significant campaign to rewrite our proud history of welcoming migrants and celebrating their contributions to Australia.

Interestingly, staff members from the Department have commented that they also feel the winds of change, with the internal direction moving from nation building and inclusion, to border protection and bona fides of applicants.

The current program is now administered in a brutal fashion, with the departure from “the care bear” mentality to a new hard-line approach. In the past, Departmental Officers would consider applications with the lens of “Australia’s interest” and make telephone calls to Sponsors and applicants to clarify questions, where now, the view is to “look for reasons to refuse”, an action that causes great expense and anguish to everyone on the receiving end of this determination.

How did we end up here?

Long gone are the days of the “ten-pound pom”, a by-product of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme that was created in 1945 by the Chifley Government and its first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, as part of the “Populate or Perish” policy.

It appears that Australia’s compassion and love for migrants officially stopped in August 2001 when then Prime Minister, John Howard implemented the “Pacific Solution” to deter asylum seekers that are “unauthorised maritime arrivals” by sending those trying to flee persecution by boat, to be detained on islands outside of Australia’s migration zone.

Australia’s response to those facing persecution was to welcome, not with open arms, but through imprisonment, isolation and hostility. The public was informed that there was a new evil and it (initially) came by boat.

The desensitisation of the Australian public towards the plight of migrants continued through placing refugees in facilities on Manus Island, Christmas Island and Nauru.  The atrocities, pain and suffering inflicted as a result of our policy of mandatory detention have been veiled with media spin in relation to the threat of terrorism that these people bring with them, as well as the need for the protection of the Australian people and way of life.

The subliminal attack on migrants did not stop on Nauru but appears to have continued through the whole immigration program, including the family and skilled streams.

What appears to be a significant and subtle shift in attitude has contributed to our current immigration policy and position, affecting not only those looking to arrive legally but also for a considerable number of Australian employers who need these skills and experience of overseas foreign nationals as employees.

Too much migration

On April 18, 2017, then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the abolishment of the subclass 457 visa program, citing the protection of “Aussie jobs” as the motivation for dismantling what was perhaps the most robust immigration program that Australia had to employ overseas foreign nationals.

The announcement also came with the removal of 216 occupations that were eligible for sponsorship, resulting in countless applicants being “ineligible” for the program. At the time, hundreds of people who had lodged valid applications to remain (many with families) were told that they had 35 days to pack their things, say their goodbyes and return to their home countries.

Whilst there was a great deal of media in relation to the plight of these people, the Australian public, fed on the belief that there was “too much” migration, hardly bat an eyelid with what could be seen as a continued violation of human rights of an exclusive group of people, all of whom had no voting rights in Australia.

The truth is that whilst Australia’s population may appear to be “more multicultural” we are also host to more than 8.5 million tourists per year, 700,000 New Zealand passport holders, 168,000 working holiday makers, as well as in-excess of 500,000 student visas holders, all contributing to our third largest export, the $32 billion student market.

It is worthwhile to note that all of these figures represent “primary visa holders” and do not include spouses, partners or dependent children. In total Australia’s population of temporary and permanent visa holders is more than 1.74 million.

In a marathon essay – written on 13 November 2017 by Freelancer Chief Executive Matt Barrie, (a great read but be warned, you will need a lot of time as well as a break or two to get through it), Barrie states that “it doesn’t seem that hard to get FIRB approval in Australia, for really anything at all. Of the 41,450 applications by foreigners to buy something in 2015-16, five were rejected”, a fact that he believes goes a long way to accounting for the artificial demand for Australian real estate and the bubble that is rapidly losing steam and shape.

There is a good chance that when you walk outside your door the “non-Australian” (whatever this looks like) people will be one of the 1.74 million temporary visa holders in Australia at any one time, rather than migrants “taking over” our country. Besides this fact, 28% of Australian were born overseas. Nearly half (49%) of all Australians were either born overseas (first generation) or have at least one parent born overseas (second generation).

Disconnection

It saddens me to witness that for the past 17 years (coincidently, the same time I have been a practitioner in the industry), the immigration department appears to have been actively retreating from humanity, from personalised service and from what many of us identify as being uniquely Australian, through giving everyone a “fair go”.

Whilst everyone will think that immigration is about humanitarian purposes, the Australian business community is now feeling the aftershocks of the erosion and attitudes towards migrants that is now permeating in the current the sponsored working program and will continue to fester unless significant action is taken.

In the immigration advice industry, we are witnessing a significant retreat from public and private consultation from the Department, on a number of levels. State-based Department liaison meetings with key stakeholder groups to address a number of issues and to suggest improvements have been cut, severing ties with practitioners that act as the conduit between government policy and legal confusion.

Most recently, we have witnessed the removal of priority processing for cases to meet project deadlines, refusals made by anonymous Case Officers who face no recourse for careless decision making and specific codes to deal with the unreasonable volume of negative decisions.

Money matters

A high-level Departmental official once said to me “this is what you get with a broke government” when discussing the reduction of resources, the increase in visa application fees and the introduction of the Skilling Australians Fund (SAF) levy.

The Australian public has been primed to forgive successive governments that have continued to target, overcharge and under-service two of the most deeply unpopular groups in Australia, bankers and migrants. The issue is that bankers control our mortgages and no number of Royal Commissions or RBA rate holds will stem the tide of interest rate increases used to sustain monumental profits.

Migrants are easy targets and the Government has based budget revenue forecasts from immigration on current levels, as opposed to banking on the claimed reduction in numbers that have been pushed through media channels for political lobbying of the Australian public. Migration is here to stay, and all sides of politics know that this is an easy way to fund campaign promises, whilst still maintaining political mileage.

At a recent Liberal National Party fundraiser, the rhetoric of the new Treasurer demonstrated that a tough stance on immigration would continue and that the cohort who are on the outer, would continue to be further isolated. Australian politicians continue to lay the foundation whilst treasury will reap the rewards of anti-migrant sentiment.

Enacting change

The amount of effort that comes with stopping the juggernaut of successive governments transforming Australia’s immigration program, is immense but far from impossible. Too many people at all levels, both inside and outside of the Department are afraid to put their head up for the fear of rocking the boat and becoming champion of the negatives of the program. This must change.

Unless the Australian public and corporate worlds work together, and the decline of the immigration department and the mechanisms of safe passage are addressed, those at the top levels will further fuel the inhumane treatment of all individuals, well past what our Australian core values would deem as acceptable practices.

image credit – created by #ELLEstreetART  @ELLEStreetArt