When I worked in the Immigration department, I often struggled to imagine solutions to problems. There were simply too many obstacles. This didn’t mean things were stagnant. There was change and activity, often driven by government and senior executive staff decisions. There was also analysis, research, meeting people etc. But the realities of big change – fundamental change – were nearly impossible to comprehend.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of this was the inability to improve people interacting with visa regulations. We are now at the point where paid representatives of migrants (called migration agents, akin to tax agents for visas) often struggle to weave through the visa application process in some instances. Some migrant agents also grease the system for personal benefit, abusing the trust of tourists, workers, students and other migrants. The costs of this are tremendous yet difficult to measure precisely.
Within this invisible problem is a to-date hidden Coalition agenda for immigration policy. I know the Liberal party should be adverse to radical change but the time has come for one big step to push through a new environment. It’s time to re-write the Migration Act (1958).
While the regulations underpinning this Act are more recent (1994), something as difficult as simplifying visa law needs a catalyst to ensure sufficient attention is devoted to the task. Leaving the Act in place and attempting to work within decades old structures stifles the ability to construct more efficient law and restricts thinking to already drawn boundaries. Announcing this as government policy would also ensure senior bureaucrats are able to gain traction within their respective departments (Immigration mostly, but also the Attorney-General’s).
There is one overriding rationale for why the Coalition should undertake this massive task.
Since 1958 and even 1994, the way the majority of immigration is undertaken has transformed. If you take a visa like the 457 – an employer-sponsored visa – the actual process under the Migration Act for a single company to hire a single worker is incredible. The rules are all over the place, disjointed by the distinction between the employer and the migrant. Things become tacked on and left out. It took me three months before I understood the actual legislation when I was working in the policy team. It would’ve taken longer but for the excellent people in our team who had processed visas in the past and knew the law backwards. Other family, skilled and student visas can be as complex. While difficult, I hold out the hope it does not have to be this way.
This is core Coalition philosophy. Reducing the burden of government on people and businesses who interact with visa regulations. While the ALP undertook a program of “Visa Simplification”, this was playing around the edges by reducing the overall number of visa subclasses. It did very little for the 10-12 major visa subclasses constituting the vast majority of all visas granted. The Coalition should aim to reduce the prevalence of migration agents. Last year I spoke to a senior executive of a massive multinational who said their external legal and migration costs gave them pause when considering hiring a 457 visa holders. Simplification will save money for companies and tension for individuals.
This is also a policy language the Coalition is well versed in and an agenda they can believe in. Past governments have shown how this occurs historically. The ALP typically rewrite social policy acts, such as Social Security in 1991 and Fair Work in 2009. The Coalition rewrote the Corporations Act in 2001 and the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2005. I find it unlikely the ALP will choose to rewrite the Migration Act given the apparent inherent difficulties to deal with asylum policy. There is only so much policy and political capital to be spent in a single portfolio.
This would not be easy. It would chew through resources and face unknown opposition within the bureaucracy. There is also the possibility it might fail to make the change I imagine. Maybe visas will always be complex and so be it. But that road leads down a dark path, a place where the status-quo should be maintained for the sake of it. While I used to think the Liberal Party were conservative in this sense, little has occurred in the past 12 months to convince me this is the case today.
The opportunity to push through substantial efficiency gains via rewriting the Migration Act is one to be tackled. This would provide the chance to entrench a new philosophy in immigration policy and signal the serious of the Coalition to deal with hard problems.
There is a hidden Coalition agenda for immigration policy. This involves radical change to seek out simplicity and efficiency. It would also be bloody difficult and take up a lot of Ministerial time, perhaps the best argument as to why this won’t occur in the near future.
It’s time to re-write the Migration Act.
Visas are so complicated that most substantial subclasses require a qualified migration agent. While the Tax Office has been busy with eTax and MyTax in recent years, stripping down forms and generating accessibility for millions of Australians, we have yet to see a sustained effort on immigration.
The ALP may point to their “Visa simplification” program. Not a bad program, it reduced the number of visa classes and attempted a more logical framework. What it didn’t do