Thursday, 25 August 2022

Speech at Sydney Policy Lab - The Administration of Australian Immigration

I wish to acknowledge we meet this evening on Aboriginal land and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

Thank you Kate for that introduction. Your work in recent years to break cycles of disadvantage is commendable and I wish you all the best in your new role leading the Sydney Policy Lab. I also acknowledge the Vice Chancellor, Mark Scott.

Australia does not have a large think-tank scene compared to other countries and I appreciate the role the Lab plays, alongside others. A more robust public debate is often a better public debate. It is wonderful to be here at the Sydney Policy Lab.

Much has been made of the unprecedented disruptions of the pandemic.

In a country where one in two people are born overseas or have a parent born overseas, the personal experiences of everyday life during a time of closed borders and restricted movement add up to tens of millions of lives changed.

Family members separated in times of joy and sorrow.

Marriages with 10 seats instead of 300. The heartbreak of a funeral held on Zoom.

The intense isolation and loneliness of being unable to leave a dorm room far from home in the hope of a better future.

We also know this is an era of global displacement. War and civil unrest. Political and religious violence. There are more people displaced from their home today than ever before.

And throughout this, our immigration system has been creaking under enormous pressure to facilitate the aspirations of our society: Bringing families together, exchanging knowledge and ideas, and giving credence to our deep humanitarian commitments.

Unfortunately, the pandemic years, like the seven years that preceded them, have been characterised by a distinct lack of action.

The decision to close the border was the correct one and among the better decisions taken by the former government.

Yet what followed should have been an opportunity to talk about immigration and what it means for Australia, and Australians.

That pause afforded a window in time.

One Australia has mostly wasted.

Instead of grabbing this opportunity, the previous government trashed Australia’s reputation.

Telling people who were building their lives in this country to ‘go home’, damaging Australia’s attractiveness.

And fixing this mess is one of the most urgent tasks of this Government.

 Let me for a moment put aside questions of policy.

I want to speak first to the previous government’s approach to the basic administration of government.

Nothing symbolises this approach more than the former Prime Minister appointing himself to various ministries across the Commonwealth, including the Department of Home Affairs.

Instead of addressing deep seated issues in the visa system, the Prime Minister was secretly appointing himself behind the backs of his own Cabinet colleagues.

Over nine long years, the functions and oversight of immigration, settlement, multicultural affairs and citizenship were systematically devalued.

How many people arrive in Australia is the question most often capturing our attention. Yet immigration is about so much more.

The manner of a new migrant’s arrival in Australia and under what conditions they live are crucial questions for governments.

These decisions affect all Australians. And the Coalition failed across the board.

 In 2014, Tony Abbott’s Commission of Audit recommended the visa system be privatised.

For the next eight years, the Coalition Government tried, and tried again, to achieve this goal.

The most recent attempt involved the waste of $80 million in Government funds by Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton on a failed tender process – dumped quietly the same week the border was closed in March 2020.

Visa processing is an essential – and fundamental -- function of national government.

It is basic public administration.

A visa system in private hands would undermine every immigration and border policy objective, including national security.

The fact the Coalition Government had multiple attempts at privatisation shows their obsession with ideology over taking responsibility for a core function of government.

Which leads me to visa processing.

The former government lost control of the visa system.

Almost one million visa applications were waiting for this Labor Government. Good governance demands a figure far smaller.

Endless waiting affects migrants, families, businesses, and the community alike.

Partners separated from their loved ones.

State governments unable to complement their stretched healthcare and education workforces.

Universities unable to compete against global peers to discover new ideas and knowledge for the benefit of all Australians.

And then there are the economic costs. I’ve heard of companies unable to hire senior executives to help grow Australian jobs.

One of the main strategic goals of having a temporary skilled visa is to facilitate workers into high-wage jobs quickly.

Australia is currently losing these people to other countries as prospective workers get sick of waiting for a visa, and businesses face more and more uncertainty, falling behind overseas rivals.

We all lose when this happens.

You may have heard of Canva. An Australian company that has taken over the world when it comes to DIY design and publishing.

They are now the largest privately held company in Australia, with over 3,000 staff and growing. They are active in 190 countries and its users have created over 10 billion designs since 2013.

This is a remarkable Australian success story, one in which migration has played its part.

In September 2020, Canva applied for an agreement to sponsor workers in specific roles currently ineligible under the standard rules.

They are still waiting for this application.

Two years of uncertainty is harming Canva’s ability to plan for growth and attract talented workers, enabling them to expand opportunities for Australians.

This situation is unacceptable – we cannot run a visa system this way.

You may have recently heard of bridging visas. These are simple administrative visas provided to people who have a visa application pending.

Typically, 40,000 to 80,000 people have held a bridging visa at any point in time.

Today, there are over 330,000 people on bridging visas.

There is no better indicator of a broken system, mired in uncertainty for everyone involved.

In a system where waiting times can be months or even years, there is no known end date to most bridging visas.

The majority of people who hold them are prohibited from leaving Australia. Daily life becomes a struggle. Changing jobs or even applying for finance becomes much more difficult.

We will bring this number down. 

The path to becoming an Australian citizen is well worn and should be something to be cherished.

Instead, under the last government, over 200,000 applications at one point in time were waiting to be conferred, meaning people had been left waiting for years.

The past government – by ignoring the administration of citizenship – have left many applicants waiting for more than five years for their citizenship application to be progressed.

This Government is committed to addressing this backlog to give people certainty about their future, not endless waiting. Citizenship means full participation in our society.

None of these functions are partisan. Nor are they unique.

They are the basic elements of a visa system required to run Australia’s immigration framework.

I was shocked when I was sworn in and briefed on these matters in detail. I remain appalled any government could allow our visa system to fall into such disrepair.   

I want to be frank about the challenges we face, because unless and until we are – we won’t be able to grasp the opportunities before us.

The failures of the previous government are an explanation for where we are.

They are not an excuse.

The buck stops with the Government and as the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs – it stops with me.

It’s been just over three months since the election and we have made progress on one of the most pressing issues: the visa backlogs choking our immigration system, our economy, and our society.

We have ensured there are now more staff at the Department of Home Affairs working on visa processing.

Visa processing is skilled work, applying a complex set of legal criteria to millions of government decisions every year. For nine years, this work has been undervalued by the former government.

Since the election, there are 180 new staff, another 140 being trained, and 150 more working on an overtime taskforce.

This is the first step in improving resourcing.

We have shifted the backlog from almost a million visa applications to around 900,000.

We will clear the backlog. We won’t do it this week but we will do it to provide certainty in basic public administration. That is what people deserve.

Looking ahead, there is more to do.

We have been thinking carefully about what the system should look like going forward.

The Jobs and Skills Summit next week is an important marker to establish this direction.

Minister O’Neil is leading the discussion on migration, alongside Minister O’Connor who oversees our skills and training agenda.

I’m fortunate to work with such colleagues.

They both know Australia does not have to choose between migration and domestic skills and training. Too often, we see a disjointed approach to these questions which simply compounds issues in the labour market.

We can do both, alongside each other, to improve the lives of Australians.

Minister O’Neil has identified the opportunities on offer: to recast Australia and attract those across the world who can help contribute to a more productive future.

Crucial new institutions, like Jobs and Skills Australia, will ensure we undertake an informed approach, characterised by evidence and overseen in a genuine tripartite manner.

Unions, business, and government working together in the interests of all Australians.

One issue close to my heart is ensuring people already here can experience the opportunities so many of us take for granted. Working in a job and connecting in our community.

People – often women – who come as spouses to skilled migrants, through the family visa stream, or as refugees.

These women are exceptional people, raising families while navigating the path of settlement in Australia with all of its ups and downs.

I have heard recently from communities about the dire state of employment support and how settlement support can be difficult to access when dealing with the everyday – putting food on the table, picking kids up from school, catching multiple bus trips across town to make an appointment.

We can do more to support these migrants who are here, to ensure they experience the best Australia has to offer and we as a nation do not waste the opportunities in front of us.

We need a clear long-term vision of the role of migration, one which will be based on a number of important principles for this government.

Some argue we derive enormous benefit from a contractual, or even mercantile, approach to temporary migration.

It is put forward we can be more agile by stripping back what makes a citizen and what makes a society. 

Others suggest the era of nation building in Australia is over.

Globalisation and mobility have rendered a sense of place less valuable.

Not me – on either front. Our society is stronger when we build people up, instead of stripping away their rights.

The Curtin and Chifley post-war migration project – bringing millions of people together to build a stronger country – is one of Labor’s proudest achievements. 

Our society is stronger when we actively nourish it, instead of allowing global forces to batter us senseless.

And our nation is only as strong as its people and the common bonds of our society.

This does not mean we should automatically replicate what occurred historically. But it does mean we should hold onto our shared values – of citizenship, of settlement, of multiculturalism.

People subject to uncertainty in the form of temporary visas rolled over and over again is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of weakness.

On migration, we want a race to the top, not a descent to the bottom.

This Labor Government, led by the Prime Minister, will ensure no migrant is ‘permanently temporary’. This means finding the appropriate pathways to permanent residency.

Today, too many use temporary migration to deliberately undercut local wages, conditions and training opportunities.

Some choose to weaponise visa rules that tilt the balance of power away from workers – temporary migrants and Australians alike.

The fault here does not sit with people who hold a temporary visa. These people are doing the best to get ahead, often in the essential jobs Australians came to really value during the pandemic.

We will have more to say on these critical issues in the months ahead but let me be clear. We will not stand idly by and watch the exploitation of migrants on an industrial scale.

Australia’s modern story has been told by people whose contribution is premised on the fact they were not guests in this country.

This continues to the pathway to a better Australia, a reconciled nation that harnesses its diversity.

This is part of the recipe for a better Australia.

Immigration is this story -- not a switch to be flipped on and off, in case of emergency.

A cursory glance my portfolio responsibilities demonstrates the breadth of this contribution.

Post migration, our settlement services have been a vital foundation. Settlement is the investment we make as a country in new migrants – in particular, refugees and humanitarian migrants.

Our almost 75 years’ commitment to teaching new migrants the English language is an enduring expression of this support, and our belief in an equal multicultural society.

We do not mandate it to force people to learn English – we offer it in good faith and support people on their journey. 

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, and tens of millions of Australians, have benefited from this.

Citizenship and its understanding of the qualities that make the Australian people – each of us, and all of us. Our willingness to look to others -- look to those around us, particularly in times of need.

We have work to do to seek a more active citizenship — staying strong and staying connected.

Multicultural affairs is an affirmative acknowledgement of where Australia’s migrants ca​me from, a statement that everyone should be proud of who they are, that everyone belongs and that our diversity is our greatest strength.

The vast majority of Australians believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia – that’s because multiculturalism works for them, and us.

Let’s imagine just how good we can be, if we work on this and ensure every Australian has a chance to play their part in our evolving Australian story.

You can see why I am able to genuinely reflect I have the best job in the government.

I would like to finish by reflecting on some words from Peter Mares.

In his book, ‘Not Quite Australian’, Mares asks whether, as a country, we can draw on the best elements of our history to craft a system which is consistent with a liberal democratic society and a commitment to citizenship-based multiculturalism.

My unequivocal answer is yes. Our best days are ahead of us. Our story is a work in progress.

Recognising this, under the Albanese Government, immigration is a priority once again, not a function to be dismissed.

It’s who we are, in the large part, and it’s who we can be.

A prosperous, dynamic, multicultural society, which looks confidently outwards and in which we support, encourage and respect each other.

Thank you for listening tonight. I understand we have a big journey in front of us, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to walk it with you.