The Migration Program and a backlog that demands serious heavy lifting

by Prachi Arya

The recent Jobs and Skills Summit saw both Andrew Giles, the Federal Minister for Immigration, and Clare O’Neil, the Federal Minister for Home Affairs, make significant announcements aimed at increasing Australia’s intake of permanent migrants and expanding its visa processing capacity.

These measures are clearly needed: Giles has previously described how, when he took office in May, the Albanese government discovered that the Department of Home Affairs (“DHA”) was saddled with a backlog of nearly one million visas awaiting processing. Amongst these were nearly 20,000 people on temporary protection visas, mostly asylum seekers, who had been awaiting an outcome on their immigration status for years. Some had been left in limbo for nearly a decade.

Indicating a clear shift from the Coalition’s policies, which included a $875 million funding cut handed down to the DHA over a period of four years, the Labor government announced an increase in the number of permanent visa grants from 160,000 to 195,000 for 2022-23.

To this end, the Budget has allocated $42.2 million over two years to enhance the DHA’s visa processing capacity, and to attract highly skilled migrants to Australia. Among other things, the funding will pay for more than 500 additional staff at the DHA to help process the surge in visa applications since the opening of international borders, as well to clear the existing backlog. Increasing the cap on permanent migration is expected to yield $935 million in revenue for the government over four years from 2022-23.

Some progress has been made on reducing the backlog: since the election, more than two million visas have been processed, and the backlog as of this month stands at 872,000, down from close to 1,000,000 in May. However, fixing the mess will be a slow process: O’Neil has said that processing permanent visa applications for the nearly 20,000 asylum seekers on temporary visas alone will take a few years.

Giles has criticised the Coalition for its “neglect of the immigration portfolio” whereas O’Neil has said that the Morrison government failed to run a “functional and effective” immigration system. However, the latest budgetary allocations are insufficient to completely reverse the previous government’s $875m funding cuts. The budget was also silent on an increase to the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT), which is the minimum amount a foreign worker must be paid to qualify for an employer-sponsored work visa. The current threshold has remained at $53,900 since 2013, even though the wages of more than 80% of all full-time workers in Australia exceed that amount.

If implemented, an increased threshold is expected to raise revenue for the government significantly. It remains to be seen how the next Budget, to be presented in May 2023, will address the TSMIT, especially given persistent demands by unions for the threshold to be raised.

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