Labor and a group of key crossbenchers – including Derryn Hinch, Tim Storer, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick – had agreed to back a Greens disallowance motion to torpedo the change.
But at the last minute, Senator McKim postponed the motion after securing a deal with the minister.
The changes, which took effect in April, meant residents needed much higher salaries to bring their parents to Australia on a visa. An individual trying to sponsor their two parents would need to prove they earn an annual income of $86,607, up from around $45,000 under the previous rules.
The government will revert to the old rules and will “reassess” any migrants who applied since the April change.
Mr Tehan plans to rewrite the legislative instrument before May 23, the letter confirms, and will “replicate the circumstances as they were prior to April 1”.
“Any individual that has had an assessment under the new provisions will be reassessed,” Mr Tehan writes.
Senator McKim thanked the minister for “engaging” on the issue and welcomed the “change of heart”.
“No doubt the government could see the writing on the wall, in terms of the Senate being prepared to support our motion,” he told SBS News.
“I spoke to Minister Tehan personally about this, and I take at face value … the commitment that he's made.
“I think the government's learned its lesson here. I think they've realised what a backlash they were facing from multicultural Australia.”
The minister argues the Greens disallowance motion would have caused the processing of visas to grind to a halt, as there would be no rule for so-called ‘Assurance of Support’ guarantees at all.
The backflip represents a substantial departure from Mr Tehan’s previous argument. Last month, the minister told SBS News the changes were needed to ensure migrant parents did not become a drain on the welfare system.
“The Australian Government wants to ensure newly-arrived migrants have the financial capacity to support themselves, while also ensuring the social security system remains sustainable,” Mr Tehan said at the time.
Greens, Labor find numbers in the Senate
The Senate was set to narrowly vote in favour of scrapping the change through a disallowance motion as soon as Wednesday evening.
The Greens motion was tabled in the Senate on Tuesday and had won support from Labor and key players on the crossbench.
“It's a dramatic change that was done in the dead of night,” Jenny Macklin, Labor’s Shadow Social Services Minister, told SBS News.
“It should be opposed, and Labor certainly will do everything we can to stop it.”
SBS News can confirm crossbench senators Derryn Hinch, Tim Storer and the two senators in the newly renamed Centre Alliance, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, would all have voted in favour of the disallowance.
That would have given the motion 39 votes – enough to narrowly succeed with a one-vote margin.
Senator McKim, who tabled the original motion, said the support of the other parties was welcome.
“I am heartened to see Labor and the Centre Alliance [senators Griff and Patrick] come on board,” he said. “I was hoping that they would.”
The Greens have now postponed the motion but have not struck it from the notice paper, pending the expected reversal.
The change would have impacted thousands of migrants on Australia’s long waiting list for visas, who were yet to have their sponsors in Australia submit their proof-of-income documents to Centrelink.
Three migration agencies in Sydney and Melbourne said they had been inundated with calls from concerned clients on the waiting list - both parents overseas and their children in Australia - who feared they will fail the government’s new requirements.
“The Greens have got a very clear view that the amount of money you earn shouldn't determine whether or not you can reunite your family,” Senator McKim said.
A retrospective change?
The changes to visa sponsorship rules mostly affect parent visas and the standards that apply to their child sponsors in Australia.
An individual trying to sponsor their two parents now needs to prove they earn an annual income of $86,607, up from around $45,000 under the previous rules. A couple sponsoring two parents now needs a combined income of $115,476.
The wait for a parent visa to come to Australia is around three years for the most common parent visa, up to around 30 years for some types.
Cases are vetted by the Department of Home Affairs, formerly known as the Immigration Department.
Usually one of the last steps is for the sponsoring child to send ‘Assurance of Support’ (AOS) paperwork to Centrelink. The AOS requires the ‘assurer’, usually the child sponsor, to demonstrate they have a high enough income, and to put down a hefty bank deposit.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan said the changes “will not be applied retrospectively” and that AOS forms lodged with Centrelink before April 1 would be assessed under the old rules.
“The Australian Government wants to ensure newly-arrived migrants have the financial capacity to support themselves, while also ensuring the social security system remains sustainable,” the minister told SBS News in a statement.
But many who have been in the queue for years - those waiting for their case to be vetted by the Department of Home Affairs and who are yet to submit their AOS paperwork - will need to meet the new standards.
SBS News has spoken with several migration agencies in Sydney and Melbourne that deal with parent visas. All have been inundated with calls from applicants on the waiting list who fear they will now fail the AOS requirements.
“The government can play all the semantic games that it likes but the effect of these changes is in fact retrospective,” Senator McKim said.
“It’s going to impact on tens of thousands of people who just want to be together with their families, many of whom have made plans under the old framework and now are having the goalposts moved on them.”
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) said it too had been receiving concerned calls from migrant communities.
“What I’m hearing from communities is that they’re really concerned that the goalposts have changed,” FECCA chair Mary Patetsos said.
Parent visa hopes crushed as Australia demands sponsors earn more