All Work, 

No Stay?



The shifting landscape of Australian migration

If you were an adventurous backpacker travelling around Australia, then working on a crocodile farm might sound like a glamorous and exciting job. But do the bragging rights compensate for a pay rate of less than $9 an hour?

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) secured more than $13,000 in back pay for two working holiday makers employed on a crocodile farm in far north Queensland that supplies skins to high-end European fashion labels. For a 37-hour week feeding crocodiles, cleaning pens and general labour and maintenance, they were paid a flat rate of $324.

The crocodile story is just one example of the steady flow of reports about exploited temporary migrants included in FWO media releases. Another recent case involved overseas workers employed on sham contracts to clean up the MCG after AFL matches. The workers—mostly international students from India, the Philippines, Colombia and Brazil—were treated as independent contractors instead of employees, and missed out on thousands of dollars in pay and entitlements. The FWO is also taking legal action to secure more than $900,000 in unpaid wages for seven Filipinos employed on 457 skilled worker visas. It’s alleged that the workers were “systematically exploited” at a Canberra massage parlour and that the proprietor threatened to have their families in the Philippines killed if they complained to the authorities.

Temporary migrants (or “visa holders”) are estimated to make up a small proportion of the Australian labour force, probably 6 per cent or less, yet they were involved in 18 per cent of the cases in which the FWO assisted workers in 2016-17 (up from less than 8 per cent a few years earlier). The agency resolves the vast majority of complaints without litigation, and generally only more serious matters end up in court. In 2016-17, almost half of the matters that went to court involved temporary migrants.



We can add in areas of exploitation outside the FWO’s remit: stories of employers threatening temporary migrants with deportation as revealed in the 7-Eleven exposé, temporary migrant workers being charged illegal job placement and visa fees, paying exorbitant rent for overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary accommodation and even allegations of sexual servitude.

This raises significant questions about immigration to Australia. Are these scandals around the edges of a generally sound migration program or evidence of fundamental flaws in policy and approach? Is Australia shifting away from permanent settlement and towards temporary visa arrangements that marginalise recent migrants and render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse? Since the 1980s, the ethos of citizenship-based multiculturalism has sought to foster an inclusive and cohesive society based on equal rights and responsibilities. Is that national understanding now under question in an increasingly globalised and mobile world? If so, what type of nation will Australia become?

These questions are best considered in the context of four fundamental changes to Australia’s migration program since the middle of the 20th century.

The first was the mass resettlement of displaced Europeans at the end of World War II. This involved not just a huge increase in numbers but also a shift from taking migrants almost exclusively from the United Kingdom to mass migration from elsewhere, initially from northern Europe and later from countries bordering the Mediterranean.



The second big change was the long slow death of the White Australia policy. The policy had been incrementally dismantled after World War II and was finally killed off by the Whitlam government in 1973. The full effect of the change was really felt later, though, under Malcolm Fraser, with the mass resettlement of Indochinese refugees from camps in Southeast Asia.

The third shift was more gradual and occurred under successive administrations, but particularly the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments. This was the shift to an emphasis on skilled migration, which went hand-in-hand with a decline in family and humanitarian migration as a share of the overall annual intake.

Skilled, family and humanitarian permanent migration 1984-2016

Family Migration
Skilled Migration
Humanitarian Migration

After a brief peak at almost 80,000 in 1987,  family migration  has been relatively steady for more than three decades, fluctuating between 30,000 and 60,000 people, but showing no consistent pattern of change over time. The vast majority of  family   migrants  (around 85 per cent) are partners, such as those married, engaged or de factos.

By contrast, permanent  skilled migration  increased dramatically, rising from 10,000 in the mid-1980s to more than 100,000 annually by 2007. In the past five years, the  skilled migration  quota has been more than 120,000 people per year.

Australia’s  humanitarian  intake is small by comparison to  family  and  skilled  migration, and has varied from around 11,000 to a recent high of almost 20,000. Looking at all three components of migration together shows that  skilled   migration  has driven the overall increase in the intake.

 Family  and  skilled  migration have essentially swapped places. In the 1980s  family  migration accounted for two-thirds of the annual intake and  skilled  migration only one-third. Now it is the other way round.  Skilled  now dominates Australia’s intake of permanent migrants.


Family Migration
Skilled Migration
Humanitarian Migration

There was a coherent logic to each of these three big changes in policy. They fitted within an overall view of the role that migration should play in nation building and national development and contributed to a shifting sense of Australian national identity.

The mass resettlement of displaced Europeans, for example, was fuelled by the logic of “populate or perish” as articulated by Australia’s first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell.

The White Australia policy was challenged domestically by enlightened thinkers who helped spread an understanding that racial discrimination was abhorrent and contradicted principles that Australian governments and the Australian people theoretically held dear, such as support for universal human rights and equality of opportunity. More pragmatically came the realisation that the White Australia policy was damaging Australia’s international relations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

“ We have always had a preference for permanent settlement or permanent migration.”
John Howard 2005

The shift to an emphasis on skills was driven by the view that this would enhance Australia’s productivity and prosperity as industry protections and tariff barriers were dismantled in an increasingly globalised and competitive world economy.

All three of these changes took place within the broader context of permanent settler migration. While there was some temporary migration to Australia in the decades after World War II—such as the Colombo Plan for international students—Australia rejected the temporary Gastarbeiter or guest-worker model that was used to bring in unskilled workers to fill gaps in the labour markets of Western Europe.

The fourth big change in policy was different. It did not fit into some overarching narrative about the direction of the nation and nor did it fit neatly within the established parameters of a multicultural Australia based on permanent settlement and citizenship. It is what I have termed a “permanent shift to temporary migration” and it has been underway for more than two decades.



It is not that permanent migration has disappeared or even declined—the annual planning level of around 200,000 permanent skilled, family and humanitarian migrants in recent years is relatively high by historical standards. But the federal government is undershooting that target, and temporary migration has come to dwarf permanent migration. The number of visas issued to the three main categories of temporary migrants—international students, working holiday makers and skilled workers—has grown much faster than the number of permanent visas issued each year. The number of temporary visas issued is now roughly triple the number of permanent visas.

This has resulted in a steady increase in the number of temporary visa holders with work rights who are living in Australia. In the period from June 2006 to June 2018, the number of international students, working holiday makers and temporary skilled workers present in Australia grew from around 350,000 to more than 800,000. (The number would be far higher if other temporary visa categories were included, such as bridging visas or New Zealand Citizen Family Relationship visas, let alone the “special category visa” granted to New Zealanders themselves.)

This shift to temporary migration can be seen as the inevitable outcome of an increasingly interconnected world economy that encourages and facilitates cross-border movement for work, study, business and tourism. Yet national governments are not powerless in the face of such globalising trends, and face a variety of policy choices in determining how to respond. Australia’s current policy—largely reactive and ad hoc—has evolved over time out of a series of specific initiatives to create new visas or modify existing ones. Each new or amended visa category had its own rationale and developed its own momentum. In some cases, a visa category came to be used in ways that policy makers had not intended or anticipated. Over time, interest groups emerged that lobbied to defend or extend particular visas.

There is no doubt that temporary migration has had many positive benefits: it enabled the growth of international education as Australia’s third largest export industry worth close to $30 billion in 2016-17; it helped to address severe labour market shortages in horticulture and other rural industries; and it fostered economic growth by enabling businesses to swiftly recruit skilled staff from overseas when no local candidates were qualified to fill critical vacancies. Yet there was little scrutiny of the cumulative effect that these discrete initiatives were having on the overall direction and outcomes of Australia’s migration program. Media reporting and public debate focussed on individual episodes of workplace abuse without asking whether there was a structural link between temporary visas and the exploitation of migrants in the labour market. The usual response to individual incidents is to demand more regulation, rather than address the inherent vulnerability arising from a worker’s visa status. This hints at a deeper issue—the tension between the growth of temporary migration and the established principle of citizenship-based multiculturalism that has been central to creating an inclusive, cohesive and diverse Australia.

Temporary Visa Holders Arriving and Departing Australia 2007-2016

Student & Graduate
457 Temporary
Working holiday
Aggregated Total

Mixed Motives and Confused Intentions

Australia’s 21st-century shift towards much higher levels of temporary entry has been characterised by mixed motives and confused policy intentions. The story of the backpackers exploited on a far north Queensland crocodile farm is illustrative here.


The backpackers came to Australia under the working holiday scheme that was established in 1975. The scheme’s original purpose was to encourage tourism and foster closer ties through cultural exchange. Young travellers could supplement their holiday funds with short-term employment and so deepen their engagement with Australia. Since 2005, however, the working holiday scheme has been turned into a program to help overcome labour shortages in rural areas. This was done by offering a second 12-month visa to backpackers who spent at least three months working in agricultural and related industries. The incentive of a second working holiday visa was originally introduced at the height of the mining boom when higher wages were attracting rural workers to the resources sector and agricultural industries found it very hard to secure sufficient employees, particularly at peak harvest times.

Once a new visa category is introduced, however, it can permanently change the dynamics of a labour market. So while many working holiday makers stay in Australia for just a few months and work very little, there is now a cohort who come primarily to work, and who are intent on securing a second 12-month visa. As a result, they fill an important role in rural industries. Australia’s horticultural sector has become almost entirely dependent on backpacker labour to harvest its crops, as was evident from the rural backlash to the government’s ill-conceived proposal in the 2016 Budget to scrap the tax-free threshold for working holiday makers and tax them 32.5 cents on every dollar earned. Backpackers—particularly from Taiwan and South Korea—often help meet the workforce needs of meat processing plants in country towns, too.

The working holiday scheme is not a pure migrant labour or guest-worker scheme since it still fulfils other purposes like encouraging tourism. Researchers Joo-Cheong Tham, Iain Campbell and Martina Boese describe it instead as a de facto temporary labour market program. The same thinking can be applied to international students; the primary purpose of a student’s visa is to study, and many students who come to Australia do not work at all. But a large number do, and often they have to work to meet their costs here. Like backpackers, international students have come to occupy a significant place in the urban labour market, generally taking up unskilled jobs such as serving in fast food outlets, lumping furniture for removals companies and staffing late-night convenience stores. What is more, Australia has used the prospect of work rights as a way of attracting students here in the first place.


COUNTRYUnited States of America
START DATE1st December 2018
VISA TYPEWork and Holiday (SC 462)

As with the tweaking of the working holiday scheme, over the past two decades governments have also fiddled with student visa rules in an attempt to address particular problems. John Howard’s government created a near automatic pathway from successful study in Australia to permanent residency. As with the changes to the working holiday scheme this was partly driven by the desire to recruit skilled migrants to fill gaps in the labour market created by the mining boom. But it had huge negative side effects, most notably the creation of dodgy private colleges acting as visa shopfronts to provide the shortest and quickest route to residency.

The Rudd government broke the nexus between Australian study and Australian residency at a particularly inopportune time. Its move to narrow the pathway to permanent settlement coincided with the deepening of the Global Financial Crisis, a high Australian dollar that inflated the price of studying in Australia, and vicious and widely publicised attacks on Indian students. In the wake of these developments, student enrolments fell dramatically. The higher education sector grew alarmed, because universities and colleges had become heavily reliant on overseas student fees as a core source of funding. As a result, the sector lobbied hard for changes to immigration rules that would help rebuild their enrolments. One outcome was the subclass 485 post-study work visa that enables international students to work in any job in Australia for at least two years after graduating from an Australian university.


Higher Education
Vocational Education
School Education
Non Award
Show Individual Measurements

The evolution of the 457 program also fits with the pattern of the government creating or amending a visa category that results in unforeseen and unintended consequences. The 457 visa began life in 1996 primarily as a mechanism to facilitate intra-company transfers of senior executives and technical specialists, replacing a series of existing but cumbersome mechanisms for businesses to bring in critical staff from overseas on a temporary basis.

It was not originally intended as a way of filling skills gaps in the economy. In fact, the 1995 inquiry chaired by Neville Roach that gave rise to the visa warned that temporary entry must not be seen “as an instrument for overcoming long-term labour market deficiencies”. The new arrangements were “not meant to apply to the traditional skilled trades or to professions like nursing and teaching”. Yet in recent years, about one in five 457 visa holders had a trade qualification and nurses were one of the biggest professional groups recruited under the scheme.

The process of policy making is inevitably messy and piecemeal. The full repercussions of a decision can never be fully anticipated. Yet while Australia’s temporary migration arrangements were not developed as a coherent whole, over time a certain logic began to emerge and to connect these new forms of temporary migration with the established pattern of permanent settlement. The disparate components of the permanent shift to temporary migration gradually coalesced into an overarching framework of two-step and multi-step migration.


The Migration Two-Step

The two-step model was most apparent in the movement between the 457 temporary skilled visa and permanent migration. In 2015-16 and again in 2016-17, for example, around 50,000 temporary migrants made the transition from 457 visas to permanent residence, constituting close to 40 per cent of Australia’s total (permanent) skilled migration intake. In about three out of four cases, this shift was achieved via employer sponsorship.

Many other temporary migrants, not just 457 visa holders, have also made the transition to permanent residency, although the pathway is often more extended and indirect.

A migrant might have started off as an international student, then moved to a 457 visa (as about 11,000 students did in 2016-17) and then to permanent residency. Or a migrant might arrive as a working holiday maker, extend that visa for a second year by working for at least 88 days picking fruit in regional Australia, and then go on to study (as more than 10,000 backpackers did in 2016-17). After graduating they might swap to a post-study work visa as a potential stepping stone to permanent residence (as almost 38,000 student graduates did in 2016-17). Similarly, international students may switch from one type of student visa to another (more than 20,000 students did in 2016-17), moving, for example, from an English language course to vocational study or from a TAFE college to a university.


The average duration of 457 visa pathways 1991 to 2014
2.7 years2.3 visas
The average duration of student visa pathways 1991 to 2014
4.4 years3.6 visas
The average duration of multi-step pathways 1991 to 2014
6.4 years3.3 visas

The most direct and common pathway from temporary migration to permanent residence has been via a 457 visa and employer sponsorship, requiring an average of  2.3  visas  (including extensions or renewals) over  2.7  years .

After graduating, some international students move directly to permanent residence with sponsorship from an employer. On average this pathway took  4.4  years  and needed  3.6  visas .

For many, the transition to permanent residency is more complex and they might move across a number of different visa categories (such as student, working holiday, or 457). Generally this pathway takes longer, with an average duration of  6.4  years  and  3.3  visas .


The average duration of 457 visa pathways 1991 to 2014
2.7 years2.3 visas
The average duration of student visa pathways 1991 to 2014
4.4 years3.6 visas
The average duration of multi-step pathways 1991 to 2014
6.4 years3.3 visas

The number of visa holders moving across and between visa categories in this way is substantial. One of the problems with the multi-step model is that it can leave people in a kind of limbo, having lived, studied and worked in this country for many years, feeling at home here, and wanting to stay, but unable to find a foot hold, especially if government changes the rules along the way.

Multi-step migration thus risked creating a cohort of people who are “not quite Australian”—settled but unsettled, living in a state of extended temporariness and uncertainty that is distressing and demoralising.

interviewie image
Paul Joe Johny

While always complex, incomplete and beset by certain tensions and contradictions, there was still some logic to Australia’s emerging hybrid migration system of two-step and multi-step migration, and it had some advantages over the 20th-century model of permanent settlement on arrival.

“ We've always run an immigration program which is premised on the fact that immigrants who come here will be offered residency and eventually have citizenship opened to them.”
Peter Costello 2005

Firstly, a two-step migration model is more responsive to business needs. Governments might set targets for how many engineers or accountants Australia needs in a given year, but this sort of planning often lags behind changes in economic conditions and is not well suited to addressing regional differences in the labour market. Under the 457 system enterprises could recruit directly to fill immediately vacant positions. The process swiftly enabled businesses to rapidly expand their operations and so employ more local staff, too. Direct recruitment into vacant positions meant workers skills and qualifications are well matched to the job and fully utilised. This reduced the likelihood of professional migrants doing unskilled work like driving taxis.

Secondly, a “try before you buy” migration model enables migrants to check Australia out before making a life changing and potentially high-cost decision to sell up and settle here, and it enables employers to be sure they have recruited the right worker for the job on an ongoing basis.

Thirdly “pay as you go” multi-step migration enables the Australian government and Australian employers to select the best applicants from the large pool of skilled temporary migrants in Australia. These migrants either arrive ready-trained from their home country (as temporary skilled workers, for example) or have acquired relevant skills here as full-fee paying international students. Since these future residents are already living and working here, they are already acclimatised and have demonstrated their potential to contribute.



Where is temporary migration taking Australia?

Despite the problems with two-step and multi-step migration, the relatively broad pathway to permanent residency via the 457 visa had advantages for temporary migrants, employers and the nation. But instead of working to minimise the problems and maximise the advantages of the emerging hybrid migration model, by acknowledging and refining the linkages between temporary migration and permanent settlement, the government is narrowing or removing them altogether.

As a result we are entering new and uncharted waters as the ideal of Australia as a nation of permanent settlement gives way to the potential reality of Australia as a guest-worker society.

“ Successive generations of migrants from all corners of the world have made Australia much stronger and richer than we would otherwise have been.”
Kevin Rudd 2013

This is most obvious in the abolition of the 457 visa in March 2018 and its replacement with the Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa.

The TSS visa has two streams. The short-term stream allows for a two-year stay that can only be renewed once, for a total stay of four years. A migrant on this visa has no pathway to permanent residency.

The medium-term TSS visa is valid for up to four years and does have a potential pathway to permanent residence. Under the previous 457 scheme, though, employers could sponsor visa holders for permanent residence after two years; skilled workers on a TSS visa will have to live and work in Australia for at least three years before this can happen.

Applicants for both streams of the new TSS visa must have at least two years’ full-time work experience “relevant” to the job for which they are recruited. The measures accompanying the scrapping of the 457 visa also included the introduction of a higher language hurdle for permanent residency. To qualify for a permanent visa under the main pathways of the Employer Nomination Scheme (subclass 186) or the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (subclass 187), applicants from non-English-speaking countries now have to prove that they have “competent” English—that is, achieve a score of at least six in every component (speaking, reading, listening and writing) of the International English Language Testing System, (IELTS) or similar programs. Previously, an IELTS score of five (“vocational English”) was sufficient.

This will make it much harder for skilled workers on temporary visas and international student graduates to find a pathway to permanent residency.


 457 Visa 
 (To March 2018) 
651 occupations
Up to four-year stay
Unlimited renewals onshore
No work experience required
Age restriction 50
Employer to spend a percentage (1% or 2%) of payroll on training
Possible pathway to residency, especially via employer sponsorship
Short-term visa
242 occupations (labour-market dependent)
Up to two-year stay
Renewable onshore once only
Two years' “relevant” work experience
Age restriction 45
Employer contribution to Skilling Australians Fund of $1200-$1800 per year
No pathway to residency
Medium-term visa
208 occupations
Up to four-year stay
Renewable onshore after three years
Two years' “relevant” work experience
Age restriction 45
Employer contribution to Skilling Australians Fund of $1200-$1800 per year
Possible pathway to residency via ENS visas 186/187 after three years

The Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, told Senate Estimates in May 2017 that the 457 visa was being scrapped because the program had become “bloated” and “distorted” into “a proxy pathway to permanent residency”. The replacement TSS visa was intended as a reset “back to its fundamental purpose, short-term needs”.

In a report on the changes, migration researcher Bob Birrell estimated the number of temporary migrants being sponsored for permanent residency by their employers will fall by about two-thirds.

While largely supportive of the government’s measures, Birrell notes that the shift from the 457 visa to the TSS visa will also increase the potential for employers to exploit temporary workers. Along with its positive aspects, the previous relatively broad pathway from 457 visa to permanent residence also had a downside, because the main gatekeeper on the pathway was the migrant’s employer. This gave employers great leverage over migrant workers, especially when they were keen to stay in Australia long-term. Temporary migrant workers are unlikely to complain about unfair wages and conditions if they fear that getting sacked means losing the right to remain in Australia.

interviewie image
Ranjit Singh

Closing the pathway to permanent residency does nothing to remove this form of leverage, since short-term TSS migrants still need to keep sweet with the boss to maintain their right to work in Australia and to secure support for a second two-year visa. Medium-term TSS visa holders will also remain vulnerable if they want to seek permanent residency through employer sponsorship, only now they will have to work for that boss for three years rather than two.

The split of the 457 visa into two streams moves Australia towards a two-tiered system of temporary skilled migration: the upper-class medium-term visa holds out the conditional prospect that migrants may eventually be accepted as full members of Australian society, while the lower-class short-term visa makes clear that Australia only wants to extract value from migrants’ labour and has no further interest in them. There is still a difference with the guest-worker programs in post-war Europe, in the sense that Australia’s TSS program is for workers with specific qualifications rather than for unskilled manual workers to be employed cleaning factories or labouring on building sites. Yet the de facto labour migration of working holiday makers and international students is largely unskilled, and other recent developments suggest that unskilled temporary migration is also likely to increase in the years ahead.

“ Ours is a citizenship-based multiculturalism … we are not a guest-worker society. Rather, people who share respect for our democratic beliefs, laws and rights are welcome to join us as full partners with equal rights.”
Chris Bowen 2011

The first example is the offer of a second 12-month visa to backpackers on the Work and Holiday program (visa subclass 462) similar to the second visa that is already available under the much larger Working Holiday program (visa subclass 417). In order to qualify for a renewal, visa holders need to work for at least three months in tourism, hospitality, agriculture, forestry or fishing in specified parts of northern Australia. There is no reason to believe that this won’t lead to the same sort of exploitation and abuse that has been routinely experienced by backpackers working in rural areas on the 417 visa

Secondly, while backpackers are generally only allowed to work for a single employer for a maximum of six months, the government is enabling working holiday makers to stay with the same employer in northern Australia for up to 12 months in certain circumstances, including if they work in the aged and disability care sector. Both these initiatives are designed to support the economic development of Australia’s far north.

Another example is the new Pacific Labour Scheme to bring in low- and semi-skilled workers to fill jobs in rural and regional Australia for up to three years. While the scheme is initially targeted at the microstates of Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu and capped at 2000 places, the government is open to expanding the scheme and bringing in workers from other Pacific Island nations in the future. Unlike the existing Seasonal Workers Programme which was intended to respond to the fluctuating demand for rural labour during the year—such as fruit picking at harvest time—the new scheme is importing temporary migrant workers to fill ongoing and permanent roles in sectors such as aged care, disability care, food services and accommodation.

interviewie image
Nicholine Duve

Two questions must be asked here. Firstly, if we have a permanent, rather than seasonal, shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in certain industries and certain regions, then why are we not training locals to fill these positions, or paying wages that will attract locals to move to those areas? Secondly, if both of these approaches have been tried and found wanting, why bring in temporary workers to fill permanent positions? Or why, at least, not also offer those temporary migrants a clear pathway to residency so that they can fill those jobs on a long-term basis and settle if they choose to do so?

The answer can only be a fear that with permanent visas, or a pathway to permanency, migrants won’t stay in those low-paid jobs or remote regions, but, once they enjoy the same rights as Australians, will vote with their feet and find a job that is better paid and better located. In other words, the government will only offer temporary visas because this restricts migrants’ rights by limiting their mobility in the labour market, creating a subclass of workers who do the jobs Australians don’t want to do.

If Australia continues down this path, then as with fruit picking, the policy will change the nature of the labour market itself. Aged and disability care in remote Australia will become the preserve of temporary migrant workers and, like horticulture, will be increasingly characterised by low pay, poor conditions and periodic scandals.

This could be seen as a problem that can be solved by better regulation and monitoring of workplaces to ensure that temporary migrant workers are treated equally with Australian workers as the law requires. But this fails to recognise that temporary migrants are not equal, because they lack the same rights, protections and social supports that Australian workers routinely enjoy including, most fundamentally, the right to remain in the country.

Eligibility for Commonwealth-funded support

Visa categoryMedicare^Centrelink payments
(Unemployment benefits, youth allowance, sickness benefits, special benefits)
Study assistance
Commonwealth Rent Assistance
International students and student graduates
Skilled workers (457 and TSS visas)
Working holiday makers
Permanent residents

Other factors also suggest that temporary migration will continue to increase in future, notably government efforts to cut Australia’s permanent migration intake and to make it harder for temporary migrants to become permanent residents and ultimately citizens, and so to access the same rights as other Australians.

“ Australia is an immigration nation…
We are defined not by race, religion or culture, but by shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and equality of opportunity—a ‘fair go’.”
Malcolm Turnbull 2017

In 2016-17 the Australian government inexplicably failed to meet its immigration planning level. In previous years the number of places announced in the federal budget was generally matched almost exactly by the number of permanent visas issued. Yet in 2016-17, the number of visas fell 6,400 below the target. While the official report on Australia’s 2017-18 migration program is yet to be published, the government has revealed that the discrepancy between the planning level and the number of visas issued was 28,000 places. This was not due to a lack of demand, as there is a large queue of qualified applicants waiting in line to be processed, many of them from temporary migrants already living in Australia.

According to media reports, the cut is the result of new integrity measures and tougher vetting of applicants. But former top immigration official Abul Rizvi disputes this claim. He argues that such an outcome is less likely to be the result of new security processes than a unilateral decision by Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton to cut the size of the program. A change in official language supports this view: government ministers no longer refer to the figure of 190,000 permanent migration places announced in the federal budget as a “target” or “the planning level” but instead as a “ceiling”. Rizvi suggests that this amounts to cutting migration by stealth.

More recently, the government announced that it was making the hurdle on the pathway to permanent migration higher, by raising the bar in the skilled migration points test from 60 points to 65 points.

Delayed Citizenship

Citizenship Applications received
Citizenship Applications on hand
Individuals who acquired Citizenship

In 2017, the federal government also tried to make it harder to gain Australian citizenship by quadrupling the amount of time a migrant was required to live in Australia as a permanent resident before applying. Parliament voted down the bill, but the government plans to try to pass it again. It seems too that the same outcome—a much longer wait for citizenship—may effectively result from a massive backlog in applications, which had blown out to more than 210,000 in April 2018.

As part of its proposed citizenship changes, the government also attempted to significantly raise the bar for English-language proficiency. Again, the measure failed, but looks like could return in a different form. The Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Alan Tudge, has floated the idea that passing a basic English language test should be a requirement for gaining permanent residency.

While this would have little impact on skilled migrants—since they must speak good English to get a visa in the first place—it could throw up new barriers for their partners and for the partners of Australians who migrate from overseas.

In the past 12 months, the federal government has twice moved to extend the amount of time that new permanent residents have to wait before they can access government support like unemployment benefits, paid parental leave or the family tax benefit. In the 2017 mid-year budget review it was extended from two to three years; in the 2018 budget it was extended from three years to four. The necessary legislation to enact this is yet to be approved by parliament. Another measure in the works is a proposal to introduce a period of provisional residence as part of the government’s “visa simplification process”. This could extend the pathway to permanent residence and citizenship even further, thus prolonging the length of time that migrants have to wait before they can access government services. Migration expert Anna Boucher from the University of Sydney told SBS news that this could presage “a fundamental shift from Australia as a country of permanent settlement to one where temporary migration is more and more the status quo”.

The direction of travel is clear: there is a push to cut the size of the permanent migration intake, to make it harder for migrants to gain permanent residency and citizenship, and to introduce new temporary visas that offer no prospect of permanent settlement. In combination with the existing trend of using temporary visa categories to address labour market challenges, these measures seem likely to make Australia’s migration program more flexible for the government and employers, and more precarious and uncertain for migrants. An inevitable outcome will be that more migrants have the questionable status of being “not quite Australian”.

This conflicts with the established pattern of citizenship-based multiculturalism that has underpinned Australia’s success as a migrant nation, by ensuring that migrants have the opportunity to become full and equal members of society over a relatively short period of time. It moves Australia closer to a traditional guest-worker model in which a cohort of subordinate, always-temporary migrants are continuously swapped out and replaced, before they can acquire the rights and entitlements that accrue with full membership of the political community.

This is about more than workers’ rights and exploitation. At stake is a larger question of what kind of country Australia is becoming. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s repeated claim that Australia is “the most successful multicultural society in the world” may be open to challenge, but it is generally agreed that Australia’s achievements in combining high rates of migration with a relatively high degree of social harmony have been realised in considerable part through principles of full inclusion. As Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said in a landmark speech in 1981, multiculturalism “is about equality of opportunity for the members of all groups to participate in and benefit from Australia's social, economic and political life”. In responding “to the fact of Australia's diversity”, he continued, “we have not created, and will not create, situations where particular ethnic communities form exploited, alienated, separate groups within our nation.”

Yet today Australia’s migration policies are moving away from that 20th-century model of full inclusion, and towards guest-worker-type arrangements and high levels of temporariness. People may not be “exploited, alienated and separated” primarily as a result of their ethnic background as Fraser feared, but rather as a result of a precarious visa status that renders them insecure and vulnerable.


ORIGINUnited States of America
author picture
By Peter Mares
August 20th 2018

Peter is contributing editor to Inside Story magazine and the author of Not Quite Australian: how temporary migration is changing the nation. His new book, No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis, will be published in September 2018. He is also co-editor of the current edition of Griffith Review “Who We Are”.


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Audio interviews thanks to SBS Radio
Audio Content Coordinator: Florencia Melgar
Audio interviewers: Shamsher Kainth, Christian Froelicher, Deeju Sivadas