‘Australia is closed’, reads the sign hung on Australia’s door in March 2020. The door is likely to remain closed until 2022.
As a consequence, overseas visitor arrivals are down by 99.1% compared to the same time last year, Australia grapples with a historic covid-19 induced recession, international flights have been significantly reduced and strict entry and exit controls, mandatory quarantine and arguably the harshest and longest lockdown measures in the world have been implemented.
In November 2020, 29,330 individuals arrived in Australia and undertook the mandatory quarantine for at least 14 days.
Of the total, 8,760 were foreigners coming to Australia either for an extended period or permanently, 13,000 were returning Australians and a mere 7,570 were foreigners entering for a short duration.
Australia’s immigration laws which are a complex labyrinth of highly codified rules and policy continue to change to reflect a new paradigm and epoch and a highly selective Migration Program.
While the direct and indirect economic benefits of the Migration Program have been significant, be they from employer sponsored visas, international education or general skilled migration, the ongoing restrictive reforms reflect Australia’s evolving foreign policy and the focus on building a ‘strong and resilient’ Australia in a ‘contested world’.
Australia’s security and concerns to address issues and find solutions to the health and economic consequences of covid-19 continue to underpin the Migration Program and the management of Australia’s borders.
Historically, the Migration Program was an economic and population policy which has served Australia well. With the closure of Australia’s borders, the focus is on health and safety, and a heightened focus on countering terrorism, violent extremism, ‘foreign interference’, transnational organised crime, strengthening cybersecurity, domestic security, defence and border security and protection.
With rising authoritarianism, Australia’s safety and prosperity is focused on a liberal ‘rules-based order’, an open market, international law and cooperation and democratic ideals.
With irregular migration and an ever-growing demand for temporary and permanent residency, the Government’s calibrated Migration Program is part of its significant and ongoing reform agenda.
The establishment of the Home Affairs Portfolio in December 2017 to form an integrated portfolio reformed the entire architecture to managing Australia’s borders, security, unity and prosperity.
The Home Affairs Portfolio brings together the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force, the Department of Immigration, Citizenship, Migration Services and Multicultural Affairs, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre and the Australian Securities and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
This integrated approach to managing Australia’s borders reflects a dynamic, global economic trade and risk environment.
Deterring asylum seekers, with the ‘Operation in Borders’ in 2019 credited as Australia’s ‘greatest national-security achievement’ aimed to cease irregular migration by sea.
Since then and with the election of Trump, Brexit and the global rise in populism Australia’s foreign, defence and strategic policies continued to respond to evolving global challenges and to balance our interests, values and domestic priorities.
The global pandemic has shown how the Home Affairs Portfolio agencies have worked together with industries at the borders. Overnight, in March 2020, with the collaboration between the Australian Border Force, major airports and international airlines, Australia’s borders closed.
Consequently, Overseas Arrivals and Departures in 2020-2021 have seen net migration fall into negative levels for the first time since World War II. According to Government forecasts, net overseas migration will not return to positive levels until 2022-23 and not to pre-pandemic levels until 2023-24.
Compared to other countries around the world Australia has done well on both the health and economic fronts in its response to covid-19.
There have been ‘28,571 confirmed cases in Australia’ of covid-19, with 909 deaths and more than ‘11.8 million tests undertaken in Australia’ as at January 2021. Whilst the Australian population of 25 million is equivalent to only 0.33% of the total world population, confirmed cases in Australia make up only 0.0002% of some 93 million cases worldwide.
As part of the whole of government approach, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee continues to provide direction on safe air travel, enhancing end-to-end mitigations in international travel including passenger pre-departure testing, in-flight infection control, airport environment and international aircrew management.
The National Cabinet which was established in 2020 to manage covid-19, continues to meet to agree to a range of measures to further mitigate the risk to Australians. It continues to address issues and find solutions to the health and economic consequences of covid-19.
On 11 January 2021, following the National Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister announced the temporary halving of the international passenger caps in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, to manage the flow of returning Australians and other travelers. Current international passenger caps in Victoria and South Australia and Northern Territory remain in place.
The Government’s Commission of the National Coordination Mechanism, with the Home Affairs Portfolio have ensured a whole of government coordination for the non-health response to covid-19.
With the closure of Australia’s borders to 2022, the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force (who has the same standing as the Chief of the Australian Defence Forces) is responsible for the management of border entry and exit controls.
Even Australian citizens and permanent residents must meet the Commissioner Guidelines and cannot depart Australia without the approval of an Outbound Travel Exemption by the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force or his Delegate.
Non-Australian/New Zealand citizens and temporary residents including Visa holders must also meet the relevant Commissioner Guidelines to have an Inward Travel Exemption approved before travelling to Australia.
All persons entering Australia must comply with Australia’s travel restrictions which include on arrival the mandatory 14-day quarantine at a designated quarantine facility and proof of a negative laboratory test result performed using a covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test which must be taken within 72 hours prior to the traveler’s scheduled departure to Australia.
From 20 March to 20 August 2020 (inclusive), there were 15,801 Inwards and 36,426 Outwards exemption requests approved by the Australian Border Force Commissioner or a Delegate. A significant number of applications continue to be lodged and many are refused.
"On 11 January 2021, following the National Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister announced the temporary halving of the international passenger caps in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, to manage the flow of returning Australians and other travelers."
In October 2020, the Government announced the establishment of a Safe Travel Zone with New Zealand. Under these arrangements, passengers from New Zealand are exempt from Australia’s travel restrictions, provided they have not been in an area designated as a covid-19 hotspot in New Zealand in the preceding 14 days.
For offshore Visa applicants, Australia’s international border restrictions remain in place and they cannot enter unless an exemption is granted. Currently, only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members and New Zealand citizens are permitted to enter.
Temporary skilled Visa applicants and current Visa holders can request an exemption from Australia’s travel restrictions if they meet the Commissioner Guidelines. The capping of international flights and quarantine measures have significantly limited the number of travelers to Australia, as part of the ongoing key government measures which have successfully limited the spread of covid-19.
The covid-19 pandemic triggered Australia’s first economic recession in over 30 years, threatening health, undermining the economy, well-being and jobs. In response to the closure of the borders, the Government has implemented various measures aimed at economic recovery.
The Australian Government’s Economic Recovery Plan is in response to Australia’s expected 2020-21 deficit of $197.7 billion equivalent to 9.9% of GDP.
The Economic Recovery Plan’s focus is on protecting Australian jobs through the temporary JobKeeper payment, helping businesses recover from the pandemic, increasing university degree study opportunities for Australians as part of the Government’s Job-ready Graduates package and major reforms to Australia’s foreign investment framework with new requirements for foreign investors.
With net migration numbers forecast to be negative in the 2020-2021 financial year for the first time since 1946, and as part of the Economic Recovery Plan, in October 2020, the Australian Government announced a whole of nation effort to identify and attract exceptionally talented individuals and high yield business to make a move to Australia with the targeted Global Talent Independent Visa Program and the Business Innovation and Investment Program.
Emerging risks and global developments, geopolitical instability, increasing trade tensions and regulatory upheaval continue to impact migration policy. The focus continues to be on national security, defence, economic recovery and maintaining social cohesion at a time of existential threat.
The significant growth in the size, frequency and sophistication of cyber attacks and the unprecedented level of foreign interference in Australia, which is now greater than ‘it was at the height of the Cold War’ has added to the covid-19 crisis.
The Government’s release of Australia’s Cybersecurity Strategy 2021, the Cybersecurity Best Practice Regulation Taskforce and the Security Legislation Amendment-Critical Infrastructure Bill 2020 are part of responding to an evolving threat environment, typified by recent state–based cyber-attacks.
The Government has passed new laws, established the Office of the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator, established the ASIO-led multi–agency Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce, and developed guidelines with universities to counter foreign interference in the tertiary education sector. The Home Affairs Portfolio continues to work with ‘Australian industry to uplift Australia’s cyber security, including through the critical infrastructure and systems of national significant reforms’.
The implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) equips reporting entities to address modern slavery risks which ‘can occur in every industry and sector’, distort global markets and ‘can pose significant legal and reputational risks’ to responsible business entities.
Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020 (Cth) aims to ensure that State/Territory entities cannot negotiate, enter, vary or continue to give effect to arrangements with foreign entities where the arrangement would adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or is inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy. It recognises the Commonwealth Government’s responsibility for, and the need to have oversight of all arrangements relevant to, foreign relations and foreign policy including arrangements made by State/Territory entities such as local governments and Australian public universities.
The covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted Australia’s Migration Program in 2019-20 with a progressive reduction in outcomes across the permanent and temporary resident (skilled employment) Visas, business innovation and investment Visas, family stream Visas, student Visa, visitor Visas and other temporary resident Visa grants.
With a record debt of over $1 trillion and a budget deficit of $197.7 billion, the Government’s maintenance of the 2020–21 Migration Program planning level of 160,000, the once-off increase of Family Stream places for onshore Partner Visa applicants and the prioritisation of the Skill Stream (Employer Sponsored, Global Talent and Business Innovation and Investor Program Visas) aim to maximise economic benefits while focusing on maintaining border integrity, prosperity and security and an open and diverse society.
As part of the Federal Government’s 2020–21 Budget on 6 October 2020, a number of reforms to the Partner Visa program were announced which will enhance protection to potential victims of family violence. These include implementing the family sponsorship framework for Partner Visas and introducing English language requirements for permanent residence sponsors and Partner Visa applicants.
Australia’s 2020-2021 Migration Planning Levels as noted in the Table below show a significant reduction in the Employer Sponsored, the Skilled Independent Regional, and the State/Territory Nominated Visa categories.
The Global Talent Independent Program planned increase is from 5000 places in 2019–2020 to 15,000 places in 2020–2021. The Business/Investment Visa planned increase is from 6862 places in 2019–2020 to 13,500 in 2020-2021.
The once-off increase in Partner Visas to 72,300 places (focused on onshore Visa applicants) reflects a commitment to address the backlog of onshore Partner Visa applications. As at 30 September 2020, there were some 223,000 Partner Visa applications backlogged globally and a significant number of Partner Visa applications continue to be lodged worldwide.
Australia continues to be a safe haven in a turbulent world and its ongoing management of covid-19 makes Australia a popular destination with growing demand for temporary and permanent entry Visas.
Australia will continue to carefully calibrate the Migration Program as targeted skilled and business migration is an important part of Australia’s economic recovery, with a focus on creating jobs and bringing investment to Australia.
Protecting Australian jobs continues to be a priority with some 942,100 Australians unemployed as at November 2020 and some 1.8 million temporary Visa holders including international students currently in Australia looking for a means to stay.
The Jobactive Labour Market Testing which came into effect on 1 October 2020, introduced the requirement to advertise vacancies on the Government Jobactive website for businesses considering nominating overseas skilled workers on subclass 457 Temporary Work, subclass 482 Temporary Skill Shortage or subclass 494 Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) Visas. This measure aims to ensure that Australian workers are given work opportunities before overseas workers when a business nominates a vacancy.
While existing skilled migration occupation lists remain active and applications continue to be processed, priority is given to occupations on the new Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) being occupations within sectors of critical importance during the covid-19 pandemic and post–pandemic recovery, and where a position is nominated under a Designated Area Migration Agreement.
The November 2020 Home Affairs Portfolio Industry Summit focused on Home Affairs Portfolio–wide key priority areas as part of ‘National Recovery’ including: ‘border transformation, national security, community partnership, technology, trade simplification, trusted and secure identities, misinformation, cyber security, modern slavery, crisis preparedness, migration policy and supply chain resilience’.
The ‘development of a Digital Passenger Declaration to reopen the border to travel and the establishment of the Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce to draw businesses to Australia’ will be part of a strong and covid-19 safe economic recovery.
The Summit highlighted the role of the Australian Border Force which with industry support has managed the wide–ranging impacts of the covid-19 pandemic and continues to focus on digitalisation in future border processing and other operational initiatives including the implementation of the Government’s Simplified Trade System initiative so as ‘to make cross–border trade more efficient and effective for businesses while remaining vigilant against possible threats’.
The Summit also marked the beginning of public consultation on the planning for the 2021–22 Migration Program, to support Australia’s long–term economic recovery and changing migration needs following the covid-19 pandemic, noting that migration policy is a key lever to support economic and population growth.
The Summit again evidenced an industry engagement strategy between the Home Affairs Portfolio and all partners, as part of the ‘critical reform programs needed to ensure Australia’s enduring prosperity, security and unity’.
It also evidenced the ongoing transformation of the management of Australia’s borders, in response to a turbulent and ever-changing world.
Australia continues to grapple with the ongoing growth in demand for temporary and permanent entry. Australia’s complex and dynamic immigration laws and policies continue to evolve with restrictive Visa–related reforms which reflect a complex security environment, the need to protect Australia’s borders and jobs while being ‘responsive to new and emerging labour trends’ and continuing to be at the forefront of attracting global talent.
The Australian Government continues to focus on regulatory compliance as part of the whole of government approach.
The Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force continue to focus on regulatory compliance which is shaped and informed by data collection, data sharing and analytics and predictive analytics, including with agencies such as the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Services Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The Department of Home Affairs continues to collect vast amounts of personal and business information as part of Visa and Citizenship applications. Data is shared with the ATO under various Data Matching Programs, the aim of which is to identify instances of migration, tax and related fraud and in the case of Centrelink, Social Security fraud.
Data collection, sharing and analytics which includes the ATO sharing tax file numbers across temporary and permanent entry programs with the Department of Home Affairs, enables the ATO, the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force to identify and take compliance action as part of a modern digital age where large-scale data analytics is integral to administration, compliance and enforcement.
The growing powers and reach of the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force as part of the Home Affairs Portfolio reflect the commitment to a strong regulatory and compliance regime and the integrity of the Migration Program.
Australia will continue to focus on sovereignty, prosperity, the respect for its values and so it remains a secure, open and prosperous nation.
In doing so, the Department of Home Affairs as part of Home Affairs Portfolio will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the ongoing transformation of the management of Australia’s borders.
As Australia responds to capability building, alliances, foreign policy, and the opportunities and challenges of a digital age including cyber subversion and national security concerns generally, the Migration Program continues to be calibrated to meet new and evolving challenges and Government policies and priorities.
This means that the historic reliance on the Migration Program primarily for economic prosperity and population growth will be balanced against the primary aim of keeping Australia and Australians safe in a covid-19 and post-pandemic world.