The cut to the migration program is more politics than policy | Abul Rizvi | Opinion
Earlier this week, head of the home affairs department, Mike Pezzullo, confirmed Canberra’s worst kept secret – the government will cut the 2017-18 migration program by around 20,000 from the “ceiling” of 190,000. On the basis of the data available, the bulk of the cut will be through the skill stream which makes up about two-thirds of the program.
It is remarkable for a Coalition government to cut skilled migration during an upswing in the economy. It’s certainly not something Menzies or Holt ever did. The John Howard government significantly increased the skilled intake when the Australian economy surged from around 2001.
But more interesting are the different explanations for the cut and the question of who will be taking the credit.
Pezzullo tried to suggest at Senate estimates the shortfall may be due to more stringent visa checking using new linked systems and that such checking can cause additional delays.
Increased use of system alerts to identify visa applications and issues that require additional investigation has been a long-standing priority for Australia’s immigration authorities. But from one year to the next, these lead to a tiny increase in the visa refusal rate, hardly 20,000. Linked systems will help to resolve issues more quickly as often as they lead to further delays.
In other words, Pezzullo was clutching at straws.
Under Pezzullo, visa processing service standards have already increased to over 12 months for most permanent visa types. For partner visas (eg people who are married to an Australian and for whom the law does not allow the government to limit the number of visas issued), visa processing times often exceed 30 months. How much further is he suggesting visa processing times will increase to explain a cut of 20,000 visas?
Australian immigration authorities are more than capable of delivering the program on target without any additional risk to visa integrity or national security. They would only deliver the program 20,000 below the “ceiling” if Dutton had instructed them to do so. The fact his department has been releasing places in the skilled independent category during 2017-18 at a rate significantly more slowly than the previous year proves this to be the case.
Pezzullo could not afford to admit delivering the program 20,000 below the 190,000 ceiling was the plan all along as that would risk demands he provide the money for the consequential hit to the budget. Scott Morrison has already warned us of this hit but has refrained from including it as a measure in the budget papers. Pezzullo and Morrison cannot say the cut would be beneficial to the economy and the budget because only a few weeks earlier, home affairs and treasury had issued a joint paper extolling the benefits of the program.
And he could not use Morrison’s explanation that the program would only be delivered below the ceiling if there is a lack of demand. The pipeline of applications is more than enough to deliver the program at 190,000.
No, Pezzullo went to his standard law enforcement playbook for an explanation of the cut. That this explanation may help in his agenda of seeking an ever expanding range of powers and a bigger law enforcement budget would have made this explanation extra attractive.
So what is the real reason for the cut?
There is certainly no obvious policy reason. If there was, it would have been included in the recent treasury/home affairs joint report on the immigration intake. Indeed, that report warns of “far reaching effects” of lower economic growth if the current intake is not maintained.
No state/territory premier or chief minister is calling for a cut, and as usual the business community is supportive of maintaining the current program. Even the ACTU has come out in support.
The reason is more likely to be pure politics rather than policy – on this we can only speculate based on who is likely to take credit for the cut.
Surely it cannot be long before Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson both come out with “I told you it was a good idea to cut immigration”? Could Hanson argue the government has cut immigration as part of her negotiations on the corporate tax cuts (but that the government has not gone far enough so she has withdrawn her support)?
Of course the real credit belongs to Peter Dutton. But how will he secure credit for something his own department says will be a negative for the economy and the budget? Perhaps talk to Ray Hadley’s radio listeners, where some may not be following the debate too closely and will be happy with a cut to immigration irrespective of the explanation?
What we now need is for the prime minister to explain the cut. Will he also go to the Pezzullo law enforcement and national security playbook? Or will he devise some new reasons of his own, having previously insisted that cabinet never discussed any cuts to the 2017-18 migration program?
• Abul Rizvi is a former deputy secretary of the immigration department