Migrants applying for an Australian partner visa, and their sponsors, will need to demonstrate English language skills or an attempt to learn from late 2021 as the government seeks to maximise employment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge on Thursday announced more details about the government's plan to introduce an English language requirement for partner visa applications, .
Mr Tudge said 13 per cent of people with no English skills are in work compared to 62 per cent of those who are fluent English speakers.
"The ambition here is to support new migrants to learn the English language so they've got the best chance of getting a job, they've got the best chance of fully participating in our society, and to ensure and support our social cohesion," he told SBS News in an interview.
"Unless you've got English, it is so difficult to get work, it is so difficult to participate in every aspect of Australian society, and it places women at more risk of domestic violence, because they might not have the ability to communicate and get the support they need."
Applicants will not be expected to pass the English test before arriving in Australia under a two-year provisional visa, but will need to demonstrate functional English or show they have made reasonable attempts to learn before applying for a permanent visa.
One way to demonstrate a committed attempt would be to complete 500 hours of free English classes through the Adult Migration English Program, Mr Tudge said. The program was expanded earlier this year to allow new migrants to access an unlimited number of classes.
At a multicultural media briefing on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the level of English required of partner visa applicants would be a "much more basic level of English language competency" than required of economic migrants, understood to mean those in the skilled migration stream which already has language requirements.
The changes are estimated to save the government almost $5 million over four years.
'Sentiments of the White Australia policy'
In the wake of the announcement, warning that it would harm Australians who fall in love with people from non-English speaking countries.
Labor's Minister for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles also expressed concerns over the changes, saying: "I really don't see how the standard of anyone's English language proficiency is relevant to their capacity to form a loving relationship with an Australian".
Australian National University demographer Liz Allen told SBS News the changes to partner visa requirements "returns Australia back to the sentiments of the White Australia policy, sending a signal of what the government considers an appropriate relationship".
"Such an introduction will cause a great deal of stress and heartbreak for many," she said.
Defending the policy during an interview on 2GB, Mr Morrison said the policy was "pro-migrant but it’s also pro-Australia.”
“They don’t have to pass the test before they come into Australia but once they get here they have to make a reasonable effort to learn the language at a basic level," he said. “It’s not stopping anyone from coming. It’s saying that once you’re here we will support you."
The cap on partner visas has been increased to 72,300 for the 2020-21 financial year, up from 47,000, with priority given to onshore applicants or their partners who live in designated regional areas.
Australia's net overseas migration is expected to fall into negative levels for the first time since World War II with a loss of 72,000 people forecast for this financial year, budget papers revealed.
A further loss of 21,600 is predicted for the following financial year, with positive net migration levels not expected to return until 2022-23.
The negative migration intake will contribute to population growth dropping to just 0.2 per cent this financial year - the slowest growth in more than a century - as migrants leave the country and new temporary visa holders are barred from entering under COVID-19 border restrictions.
"Australia could be older, whiter and smaller than it would have been without the impacts of COVID-related border closures," Dr Allen said.
"Migrants are essential to ensuring the nation’s workforce is sufficient to economically support the wellbeing we’ve been accustomed to in Australia."
Australia’s international borders have been closed to everyone apart from citizens, permanent residents, their immediate family members and people granted a special exemption since 18 March in an attempt to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks.
The government expects a population-wide COVID-19 vaccine to be in place by the end of 2021, allowing borders to gradually reopen.
Mr Tudge said further details about changes to partner visas would be announced over the next few months.