By Lisa Macdonald
On July 3, federal cabinet approved a 12,000 cut in the 1996-97 immigration program. In a tone reminiscent of his 1988 One Nation policy which called for reduced Asian immigration, John Howard announced the latest changes, appropriately enough, on right-winger John Laws' radio program.
The proposed new immigration quotas cut the intake of refugee and other humanitarian migrants by 3000 and significantly change the composition of the non-humanitarian intake, which has been cut from 83,000 to 74,000. While the total family reunion intake has been cut by 13,500, the skilled migrant intake has increased from 23,600 to 28,000.
The government is exploiting the media beat-up of the mid-June AGB-McNair opinion poll on immigration, in which 65% of respondents said that the current level of immigration is too high, and 74% of these gave the country's high level of unemployment as the reason. It is attempting to justify the changes primarily in terms of chronic unemployment and alleged "overuse" of social security payments by some migrant groups. In contrast to family reunion migrants, "Business migrants have a history of creating jobs, investment and export income for Australia", says federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock.
The cuts have been generally supported by the representatives of Australian big business. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of July 4 called them a "brave move", arguing that "a cut this year in the overall non-humanitarian program, and a tilting of the balance towards skilled migrants, is justified".
The Australian editorial on the same praised Howard for putting "the national interest ahead of the political power of the ethnic lobbies ... The change is only to be welcomed."
The move was also loudly acclaimed by NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr, who said it will ease population pressures in Sydney. As for the rest of the ALP, which has remained noticeably silent, it is a case of not wanting to reveal that these are only "changes by degree", WA Greens Senator Dee Margetts told Green Left. The federal Labor government implemented many changes to Australia's immigration rules over the past decade which laid the groundwork for the latest attacks.
Smelling blood, the anti-immigration lobby, represented most vocally by Australians Against Further Immigration, is pushing for larger cuts, saying the changes are merely "a small step in the right direction". Joining the chorus is Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research, which argues that the decision is a step forward principally because the government has tackled the politically sensitive issue of family reunion, the "engine of growth in the [immigration] program".
In addition to the intake cut, the Coalition is attacking in other areas, including:
- Spouses and de factos being reunited with their partners in Australia will have to enter the country on two-year probationary visas before permanent residence is granted. In addition, de factos must provide proof that they lived with the sponsor for two years (previously it was six months) before being allowed entry.
- More extensive use of the $3000 bond that is currently paid by sponsors (in itself, limiting those able to sponsor family members) and is returned only if the immigrant has incurred no government welfare expenditure after two years.
- Parents will now be able to immigrate only if "a clear majority" (rather than the current rule of "at least half") of their children live in Australia.
- Only Australian citizens can sponsor a family member to immigrate.
- People wishing to enter under the concessional family reunion category will have their English-speaking ability counted in their entrance entitlement score.
According to Angela Chan, chairperson of the Ethnic Communities Council (NSW), this last rule heralds a return to the White Australia policy. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on July 10, Chan said: "49% of visas issued in 1994-95 would have been rejected on the basis of language. Effectively, the proportion of people arriving from non-English speaking regions ... would drop from over 63% to around 31% of the concessional family category ... Is this really a non-discriminatory policy?"
Arthi Patel, policy coordinator for the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre in Sydney, told Green Left that among the most significant and far-reaching of the changes is that only Australian citizens can sponsor family reunion migrants. "There are many people in Australia who have been permanent residents for many, many years and made huge commitments to the community, but have not taken out Australian citizenship because they will lose their first nationality and they may lose property rights in their home country, for example. That has nothing to do with their commitment to the community, but they will still be prevented from sponsoring their close family members."
The other group which will be badly affected is refugees, says Patel. "These are often people who would like to take out citizenship immediately, but because of our citizenship laws, have to wait for two years. We've got many clients who've come to Australia and been given protection because they face persecution in their own country, but they will not be able to sponsor their wives or husbands or children who are left in the home country and may continue to experience persecution, because they won't be citizens for another two years."
Return to serfdom
On July 8, the Coalition also announced discussions with state governments of a plan to penalise migrants $30,000 if they move back to capital cities after being designated to live elsewhere.
This bond, to be paid on entry to Australia, is supposed to encourage independent skilled migrants to settle away from the main population centres. Up to 700 of the 8000 concessional family places have been allocated specifically to migrants sponsored by people who have been living outside "designated areas" for at least 12 months. These areas include all of NSW, Melbourne and the main population centres in Queensland.
In addition, applicants sponsored by people living in regional areas will receive 20 bonus points rather than five as at present. One hundred points are required to be eligible for entry.
The government is also increasing from 100 to 500 the number of places set aside for skilled migrants sponsored by employers in regional areas.
According to Chan, the proposed bond system contravenes the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act (1986), which specifies that all lawful residents shall have the right of freedom of movement and freedom to choose their residence.
Despite the fact that the changes break pre-election promises, they have been formulated behind closed doors and presented as a fait accompli. According to Margetts, this process is not atypical of the "secret cuts" which the Coalition is implementing, without discussion either inside or outside parliament, before the budget is even presented. In this case, the government is openly saying it will enforce the changes via administrative measures until the necessary legislation is passed. It is another case of "the government picking off groups that can't fight back", says Margetts.