Senate set to decide if family visas will go only to the rich

Federal government plans to axe several types of family visas could mean that for some, being able to reunite their families in Australia could become a thing of the past. Clark Fred/Wikimedia Commons

This afternoon, the Australian Senate will be asked to vote on a Greens disallowance motion, which seeks to stop the Abbott government repealing several types of family visas. These include: the Parent Visa (non-contributory); Aged Parent Visa; Aged Dependent Relative Visa; Remaining Relative Visa; and the Carer Visa.

These visas allow Australian permanent residents or citizens to sponsor their parents and dependent relatives to come to Australia or, in the case of a carer visa, to sponsor a relative to care for them if they have a long-term or permanent medical condition.

The government has justified the repeal of these visas sub-classes as necessary to focus the Family Migration Program on the entry of “partners, children and those parents who are able contribute financially to the cost of their migration and settlement”.

It has left open for application the contributory parent visa, amongst others, which requires applicants to pay a significantly higher visa application charge and assurance of support or bond. An application for a contributory parent visa can cost anywhere up to A$47,000 per applicant. This is significantly higher than the cost of non-contributory parent visas.

As University of Sydney law experts Mary Crock and Kate Bones have warned, the changes would make family reunions a “preserve of the rich”.

The move forms part of the government’s broader objective to “ensure that skilled people comprise at least two-thirds of the Migration Program”. According to the regulation’s explanatory memorandum, “skilled migrants have the lowest rate of unemployment and strongest English skills – keys drivers of successful labour market participation and integration into society”.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Stefan Postles/AAP

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s message is clear: “immigration is an economic policy, it is not welfare policy”.

There is no doubt that, in the short term, the repeal of these visas will lighten the Department of Immigration’s workload and result in additional revenue from forcing applicants to apply for more expensive visas.

However, even apart from lacking compassion for families, this is a short-sighted approach to immigration policy. It ignores the significant, but indirect, contribution that carers and parents make to the Australian economy. In the long run, the repeal of these visas is likely to result in a net loss for Australia.

Unpaid but invaluable family care

Consider, for example, the role that parents can play in reducing the opportunity cost of childcare to Australian families.

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling and AMP recently reported that the cost of childcare has outstripped petrol prices in the last five years. For some families, the cost of childcare is so great that it makes little economic sense for parents re-enter the workforce.

Grandparents relieve the burden of rising childcare costs, allowing parents to work more often and contribute to the economy. Without familial support, Australian citizens will rely heavily on government subsidies to meet these rising costs.

Australia has a rapidly ageing economy in which more people will require assistance. There is scant justification for denying Australian permanent residents or citizens access to a relative who can provide them with much-needed support.

The carer visa is available only when an Australian with a long-term or permanent medical condition cannot obtain that help from hospital and community services or other relatives in Australia. That is, the visa is granted only where there is a genuine need for assistance.

Attracting and keeping skilled workers

Ironically, the loss of these visas may also reduce Australia’s ability to compete with other economies to attract the best skilled migrants.

Family remains a fundamental unit of society and many skilled migrants will want to bring their families to Australia at some point. Imposing further barriers to family reunification may deter prospective skilled migrants, who may consider taking their skills elsewhere.

Alternatively, those who are already in Australia and who cannot afford the high visa fees may decide go offshore to look after their elderly parents. The result is an outflow of skilled labour from Australia for potentially long periods of time.

The repeal of these family visas will also have a disproportionate effect on refugees, especially if other measures proposed by the government fall into the place. The Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014 (Cth) – currently before the Senate – proposes amendments to the Migration Regulations that would limit the ability for family members of a person who has been granted a protection visa to apply for a protection visa.

The government suggests that family reunification should occur only through the Family Migration Program. Yet, at the same time, it is seeking to limit the number of visas available and put the cost of obtaining such visas beyond the reach of newly arrived refugees.

It is also worth noting these family visas form a relatively small proportion of Australia’s migration program. The planning level for the financial year 2014-2015 for the Other Family visas is 500, and only 1500 places had been allocated for non-contributory parent visas prior to the repeal. That means that from a total migration program of 190,000, the visas being repealed represent just 2,000 – or around 1%.

The question for the Senate will be: do the short-term benefits of repealing these visas outweigh the long-term social and economic losses?

The answer is clearly “no” – so today’s disallowance motion should be supported.

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