New Australian Immigration Minister Announced

by Mark Webster, Acacia Immigration Australia, September 13, 2010

Chris Bowen was announced yesterday as the new Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. Mr Bowen replaces Chris Evans as the Minister for Immigration. The announcement was part of the Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Cabinet reshuffle after forming a minority government supported by the Greens and a number of Independents after the recent Federal Election.

The new Minister for Immigration may be influenced by two factors going forward:

  • The balance of power being held by the Greens and Independents with their own specific agendas; and
  • The continued influence of the previous Minister, Chris Evans

The New Minister for Immigration - Chris Bowen

Chris Bowen is relatively young for a Minister, having been born in 1973. He has a university education, completing a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Sydney. After completing university, he worked as a research and media officer for his predecessor in the Federal seat of Prospect, Janice Crosio from 1994-1995.

He then worked as an Industrial Officer for the Finance Sector Union from 1995-2000. This would have involved negotiation, research and advice for workers in relation to their employment conditions.

He was then senior advisor and later Chief of Staff for the NSW State MP Carl Scully from 2000-2004. Carl Scully was at that stage Minister for Roads and Housing for NSW.

He was elected to Fairfield council in 1995, and became Mayor in 1998. In 1999 he was elected President of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, a position he held until 2001.

Mr Bowen has been a member of the Labour Party since 1988 (this would have been from the age of 15). In 2004, Janice Crocio retired as the Member for Prospect, and Chris Bowen was elected in her place.

The electorate of Prospect has now been abolished and Mr Bowen is the current Member for McMahon. This is an electorate in Western Sydney which is mixed in composition. On the one hand, it includes multicultural urban areas such as Blacktown, Fairfield and Smithfield. On the other hand, it extends past Prospect Reservoir and includes some agricultural areas.

Chris Bowen was previously the Minister for Human Services, and the Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law. The new Minister should have some appreciation of multicultural issues coming from a highly diverse electorate. However, he may have picked up a preference for a smaller migration program from his time working with the NSW Minister for Roads and Housing. Lack of infrastructure in Sydney is often cited as a reason for slowing migration. His time with the Finance Sector Union might also have resulted in a strong commitment to protect Australian jobs and conditions, and a preference for sourcing skills locally versus bringing skills in from overseas.

A Hung Parliament - Effect on Immigration Policy

In the recent Federal Election held on 21 August, neither major political party (Labour and Liberal/Nationals Coalition) won enough seats to win power in their own right. Both parties finished on 72 lower house seats, whereas they would need 76 to form a majority in the lower house. Julia Gillard has managed to form government by making arrangements with the Australian Greens and a number of Independent Members of Parliament.

The Australian Greens did very well in the recent election - with their first ever lower house MP, Adam Brandt, being elected, as well as 9 senators who will take office from the 1st of July 2011. Labour signed an agreement with the Greens under which the Greens agree to support the Government, in return for a number of concessions. These concessions include regular meetings with the Prime Minister, and working on policies in relation to the Environment, Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, and various Parliamentary integrity measures. As a result, Labour is relying on the Greens to be able to govern, and the Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate after 1 July 2011.

Five independent members were also elected in the recent election. Most of these were former National Party members - they hold electorates in regional areas of Australia. Two of the independents sided with the Liberal/National Coalition. Three of the independents sided with Labour - in return for a number of concessions.

As the three independents are from regional areas, we can expect there will be more emphasis on regional outcomes for immigration. Over the last 3 years, the previous Minister reversed a number of regional policies, including removing concessions for regional 457 visas, and delaying processing of regional sponsored skilled visas.

Chris Bowen in recent statements has shown good awareness of regional issues, so it is certainly possible that regional initiatives will be on his radar screen.

Both the Greens and Independents have been vocal in reforming Parliament and ensuring that the Government is more open and accountable. The Visa Capping Bill, which would have allowed the Minister to cancel visa applications based on criteria of his own choosing, is a particularly troubling piece of legislation. The Greens are very unlikely to support such a Bill as it arguably has a significant impact on transparency and a significant potential for abuse of power.

The Previous Minister for Immigration - Chris Evans

The previous Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, is now Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. The old Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations has been split into Minister Evans' portfolio and a portfolio of Schools, Early Childhood and Youth to be held by Peter Garrett.

The term "Education" does not appear in either of the titles of these two ministries and this has caused distress to Australian Universities. Whilst there may not be much in a name, the term "Skills" implies very practical workplace based training. This would appear to be in line with Julia Gillard's very early comments on becoming PM in relation to her preference to first train up unskilled Australians to fill vacant positions rather than relying on immigration.

Whilst he is no longer Minister for Immigration, we can expect Minister Evans to have a continued effect of Australia's migration program. This is mainly due to a significant overlap between immigration and education, employment and workplace relations. In addition, Minister Bowen is reasonably junior and has little experience with immigration matters; we may find that Senator Evans will be able to exert considerable influence in this portfolio.

Readers may recall that Minister Evans' changes to the General Skilled Migration program have resulted in a significant downturn in enrolments of international students in Australia. Now that Minister Evans is in charge of higher education, we may find that this trend continues.

Minister Evans also made changes to the 457 visa program to make it more difficult for employers to sponsor overseas workers - including increasing the training requirement and payment of a "market rate" salary rather than a fixed minimum salary. These changes were intended by Minister Evans to protect Australian jobs. Setting the training requirement will be part of Minister Evans' new portfolio, so we can expect the requirements to be tightened further and that it will be more difficult to sponsor under the 457 program.

Conclusion

The new Minister will take some time to find his feet and we will reserve judgement until we see some of his decisions. The influence of the previous Minister will remain strong and we can be sure that Chris Evans will seek to encourage continuation of his initiatives. Counterbalancing this is a need to ensure that any changes introduced are palatable to the Greens and Independents holding the balance of power. We also have the possibility of regional incentives for immigration to be reintroduced, which would be very welcome.

Sources:

http://www.chrisbowen.net

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