Immigration Senate Estimates: What we need to know (Part B)

Yesterday I outlined topics relating to Operation Sovereign Borders which should be covered in the upcoming Senate Estimates session for the department of immigration. Today I’ll cover other policy areas in the immigration portfolio.

The Migration Program

Every year the government, through the budget process, conducts some “stakeholder consultation” on the make up of the migration program for the following year. The migration program is the number of permanent migration visas made available. This year, the Australian Industry Group’s submission to the consultation raised a few eyebrows by advocating a raise in the number of permanent visas available to 220,000 (an increase of 30,000).

The problem with this consultation process is the lack of transparency. Unlike many submission processes, there is no publicly available list of submissions. The public is unable to see who lobbies government and on what basis their arguments are made. Senators should seek to highlight this process. Enquire exactly the numbers are chosen.

These numbers mean a lot less than they used to given the growth of temporary migration. However they are still an important policy decision regarding population levels. Transparency would go a long way given the strong public interest in relation to population. Immigration contributes about 60 per cent of Australia’s population growth and these type of technocratic processes should be more closely examined.

The Humanitarian Program

The humanitarian program is the number of refugees who are screened by the United Nations and chosen by Australia for resettlement. The policy relates to refugees, people typically in large camps overseas or protracted conflict areas, as opposed to asylum seekers.

This program is perhaps the starkest difference between the government and the ALP in terms of immigration policy. The ALP increased the humanitarian program to 20,000 places as part of implementing the Houston Panel recommendations in 2012. The Abbott government, in one of its first decisions, reduced the program back to 13,500 as a cost saving measure.

The humanitarian program is well supported by the public. The key line of questioning here is drawing on how successful the program is and providing a constant reminder about the difference between the two parties. This program also has a submission process, one also clouded by secrecy. Information and advocacy in those submissions likely aligns heavily on the ALP policy position. This should be highlighted and uncovered as third-party endorsement is critical to build on long-term support for

457 visas

I’ve attempted to explain this in the past, without great success. Let’s try again.

The ALP introduced Labour Market Testing for 457 visas last year. This means, for certain jobs, an employer must advertise their vacant position, before offering it to a migrant on a 457 visa. The idea is to hire Australian workers first. However, the ALP did not finalise the legislation before losing the election. This meant the Abbott government finished up the process.

Using historic data, the department of immigration believes about 35 per cent of 457 visas would have required labour market testing. This means some occupations are not covered by labour market testing. One left uncovered is called ‘Program or Project Administrator‘ (ANZSCO Code 511112). Over the past two years, this has been the most popular occupations in the 457 visa program. This is the problem as this occupation is likely subject to exploitation and misuse.

I don’t believe labour market testing is effective at actually getting Australians into jobs. But if there was a single occupation required to under labour market testing, it should be this one. The fact this entire process has been introduced and the single most troublesome occupation has escaped the attention of bureaucrats and government is a travesty. Why is this occupation – responsible for about 2.5 per cent of all 457 visas  –  not subject to labour market testing? What criteria were used to determine which occupations were and were not included in labour market testing? These are questions which should be answered, especially by the ALP given the rhetoric of last year.

Additionally, this is an area where the ALP can probably make substantial headway in opposition. There is a latent fear of foreign workers taking jobs in the labour market. I think its a load of baloney, but these do seem to be genuine public concerns. There is a careful policy approach to be had, supporting the 457 visa program, while also ensuring it doesn’t undercut existing wages and conditions. This means ensuring dodgy employers are kept in line but also supporting the program where necessary. One place to start is with Program and Project Administrators. Another is to ensure temporary visa holders have proper pathways to permanent residency (something in government, the ALP was less good at).

Student visas

Of the best pieces of immigration reform by the ALP was reforming the student visa program. Under the Howard government, low quality higher education providers proliferated, acting as a dodgy pathway to a permanent residency. These organisations had something young migrants wanted and sold it at an outrageous price. They promised the world to everyone, often taking money without providing basics services or assistance. While student visas aren’t perfect now, the ALP restricted these providers by de-linking higher education and permanent visas for the most dodgy providers.

One of Christopher Pyne’s early policy thought bubbles is to increase the scope of the higher education market for international students. While there are undoubtedly some providers who are excellent, given the mistakes of the past, it is imperative to tread very carefully in this area. Questions seeking to uncover the government’s intention and the bureaucratic implications behind them are important. An excellent question last Estimates demonstrates the potential market which exists for poor quality providers of higher education:

Q: Can you indicate what percentage of the 1,030 (higher education institutions) are regarded by the Department of Immigration as low risk?

The Department of Education advises that as at 19 November 2013, there are 1083 non-university providers that are registered in the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS).

At the time of determining eligibility to participate in the extended streamlined visa processing arrangements, a total of 97 non-university providers were registered in CRICOS to deliver bachelor, masters or doctoral degree courses to international students.

Of these providers, 22 (22.7 per cent) were determined to meet the low immigration risk criteria to participate in the extended streamlined visa processing arrangements. These criteria included the fact that the education provider must be associated with at least 100 active student visas in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s systems.

Only 22 per cent of non-university providers meet the low risk criteria. While I’m sure these risk criteria are a little bit subjective, this shows well over half of non-university bachelor and masters courses are classified as at least some-what risky. Its up to the ALP to keep thee government out of expanding courses to international students simply as an attraction for permanent residency. Pyne is dead keen on doing it despite the horrendous outcomes which occurred last time – see here and here for detailed explanations.

Temporary visas

Finally, the theme of temporary visas as a whole (of which students and 457s are a substantial part) is a long term policy challenge for the ALP. The union movement and the ALP in general are strong supporters of permanent residency as it provides full rights in the labour market, including the choice of employer. Many temporary migrants are restricted in the labour market, either formally or informally.

The ALP did a good job of increasing the number of permanent residency places for temporary visa holders. This is evidenced by the rise of people applying for permanent visas who are already living and working in Australia. It is now time to ensure the Abbott government keeps temporary migration in Australia fair, sustainable and in the interest of migrants and workers, as well as employers. I’m slightly suspicious the Abbott government won’t care particularly much about the nuances of this debate, and this is one battlefield in industrial relations which has a significant impact with hardly a peep in the media.

One of the worst situations to end up in is being a long-term temporary residency with little opportunity for permanent status. Through senate estimates, the ALP needs to find out the number of temporary residents who have been in Australia for more than 10 years. Time periods on temporary visas longer than that are bad for migrants, employers and the labour market in general. Policy for temporary visas as a whole needs to be geared around keeping the proportion of temporary visa holders in Australia for 10 years as low as possible, perhaps even committing to a benchmark. But at the moment, no-one knows what the official figure is. Find out what it was at 31 December 2013 and for the next three years keep an eye on it.

Many of these areas can be asked via written questions. But its important to get the wording right and force the right answers out of the bureaucracy. Too often, sloppy questions lead to repetitive answers and the lack of useful information. Public servants will go out of their way to cover the government of the time as they know what information is politically sensitive and what isn’t.

Be specific, be concise and don’t muddy the water with political grandstanding.

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