Under the radar: making immigration policy during an election campaign

By Henry Sherrell

September 7, 2016

Two weeks before the federal election on July 2, Labor announced an immigration policy for parents of permanent residents and Australian citizens. With first-generation migrants driving high population growth since the turn of the millennium, a growing demand for family reunion has bubbled away under the surface of immigration policy, out of sight from the day-to-day decisions and media attention.

Because of this, you likely wouldn’t have read about Labor’s new policy in the paper, nor seen any reporting on the nightly news (apart from SBS). Targeted at ethnic media, community leaders and social media, this was a major pitch for ethnic community support, going beyond the standard cash grants and local promises thrown around at election time. This was a substantial policy change with big implications for both ethnic communities and Australian immigration policy.

Family reunion is really difficult for parents of new migrants. Outside of receiving a skilled visa themselves, there are three main pathways for parents to join their children in Australia and they either involve constant disruption, outrageous costs or the patience (and health) to wait 25 years.

” … the lack of thinking and engagement behind the scenes means the policy vacuum is filled by knee-jerk responses to pressure points.”

The first pathway, and most common, is to visit on rolling 12-month tourist visas. The catch is you need to spend at least six months outside of Australia at the end of each visa. It is difficult to estimate how many tens of thousands of people are doing this to be with their family in Australia but the number is large and growing. Despite the constant travel, churn and disruption, this is often the only option available to people.

The second pathway is to pay. A Contributory Parent visa costs approximately $43,000 before you add in migration advice and other fees. This visa is permanent, removes the uncertainty of being away from family and having to leave Australia constantly. For two parents, you are looking at over $90,000 in various fees and charges, a price out of range for the majority of first-generation migrants.

The third pathway is to wait. The standard parent visa only costs $3870 however the current processing time is up to 30 years. For example, if I lodged my standard parent visa application on July 1, 2016, there are 38,790 people ahead of me in the queue. Perhaps this means Contributory Parent visas are the real queue jumpers? Perhaps it just means the system is fundamentally broken.


In 2015-16, there were 7175 Contributory Parent visas available and 1500 standard parent visas. Take 1500 per year and divvy it up in 38,790 people and you get a 25-year wait.

Away from the cost or the wait, the other significant regulatory reason parents cannot join their children in Australia is the Balance of Family test for any parent visa (note: this does not apply for rolling tourist visas). The test requires “that at least half of your children live permanently in Australia, or that more of your children live permanently in Australia than in any other country”. Many parents who wish to migrate to Australia cannot meet this test. This regulatory test is also the primary reason why the push has come from sub-continent communities, as opposed to the Chinese community where the one-child policy means this is largely irrelevant.

Back to the election

Labor’s policy took the modern staple of Australian migration policy – a temporary visa – and combined it with a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, a focus on family instead of the economy. Labor would provide parents of Australian permanent residents and citizens with a three-year continuous visitor visa if they held private health insurance, paid a $5000 bond and were nominally sponsored by their Australian child. And the kicker was to get another visa, you would only have to spend a month outside Australia.

This would be a simple, straightforward process so often lacking from immigration policy. However it would also have massive knock-on effects, embedding a new generation of older migrants in Australian society as temporary residents with no access to Medicare or the aged pension.

This was the trade-off: allowing family reunion in migrant communities but without full access to the welfare state. Once again, the question of numbers versus rights appears in immigration policy. The fact this was hardly sustainable over even a decade was irrelevant two weeks before an election. This could be a PFG: a problem for government.

Off the back of a real grassroots campaign from sub-continent communities, Labor saw an opportunity to directly appeal to small but important electoral group across a number of key marginal seats, such as Reid, Banks and Chisholm. Many of these families were the definition of aspiration: first-generation skilled workers, earning above average salaries and living in growing suburbs with high house prices requiring dual incomes.

Who was looking after the children? What about the strong cultural connotations of family and the place of grandparents in the family for many of these ethnic communities? These are powerful arguments and difficult to argue against but they also pose questions immigration policy is poorly equipped to answer.


You can tell the Coalition thought this was going to bite because just three days later, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was announcing a parent visa policy of his own. However the Coalition were starting behind the eight-ball. In the now infamous 2014 Budget, the Coalition attempted to abolish standard parent visas entirely. While applications would continue to be processed, no new applications would be accepted. When this plan was defeated in the Senate, the Coalition did not have a plan B for the 25-30 year wait and simply ignored it for a couple of years.

To make up for this lack of action, the Coalition upped the length of stay in Australia to a five-year continuous tourist visa, seemingly trumping Labor’s three-year promise. Again, this would be a temporary visa without access to Medicare or the aged pension.

However the Coalition had obviously thought about this a little bit and the press release has a couple of important caveats. Dutton’s office clarified the Coalition proposal would be on a “case-by-case” basis and at the minister’s discretion. This is immigration-code for serious subjectivity on behalf of visa processing officers pending new policy directions. It means a lack of certainty and the wiggle room required for a policy which, to be honest, no-one had considered until three days before.

After winning the election, Dutton is left with sky-high expectations around parent visas from an agitated cross-section of the community who will demand he follows through on his promise. If this new tourist visa is out of reach for the standard parent, the community backlash will be loud and sustained, particularly given the Labor alternative. Regardless of its flaws, it was “comprehensive, clear and reasonable” according to the largest non-SBS Indian news outlet, Indian Link.

His department are likely trying to work out a compromise solution, knowing the demand for a simple parent tourist visa could possibly attract hundreds of thousands of elderly, non-English speaking new migrants. There are a myriad of potential issues to work through. For example, what would happen if their sponsor, in this case an Australian citizen, were to die? Should grandparents on a temporary visa be allowed to stay in Australia without their sponsor to look after children? Is it a good thing to have people living for decades in Australia, but not of Australia in the form of citizenship?

Unfortunately this is what happens when immigration policy is so completely dominated by asylum. Between elections, there is zero focus on these questions of family migration, or nearly any other kind of migration. Despite the total overhaul of immigration policy away from family reunion since the 1990s, the lack of thinking and engagement behind the scenes means the policy vacuum is filled by knee-jerk responses to pressure points applied at exactly the right time.

There was no conversation about how to deal with a 25 year wait for elderly parents wanting to be with their family. There was no conversation about whether it is right or proper to pay over $40,000 for a visa. There was no consideration of what would happen to a growing community of elderly temporary residents and access to appropriate healthcare. Instead we get policy announcements at twenty paces outside the media bubble.

As asylum policy blinded our collective conscious to the issues of temporary migration and the labour market for years, the first skirmish in the policy around parent visas for up to one in four Australians, first-generation migrants, has all the hallmarks of heading in the same direction, under the radar and away from public discussion until it’s likely too late.

Henry Sherrell is a former immigration policy official with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and policy officer with the Migration Council Australia. Henry blogs about immigration issues at On The Move and Facebook.

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