Immigration Portfolio Budget 2011-12 - Back to the Future

By Mark Webster
11 May 2011

Last night's federal budget introduced a number of changes to be introduced into the Immigration and Citizenship portfolio. Chief amongst these are:

However, many of these changes mark a return to policies which were only recently changed or abandoned so we are 'back to the future' on a number of issues.

Enterprise Migration Agreements for Resources Projects

Enterprise Migration Agreements (or EMAs) will be agreements to facilitate sponsorship of overseas workers for 457 visas. Their main advantage will be to allow employers working in large resource projects to sponsor workers for 457 visas in a range of occupations outside the usual list of occupations for 457 visas. EMA sponsors would still be subject to the restrictions on salary level and English language ability which apply to the 457 program. This can be viewed as a partial reinstatement of the regional concessions for 457 visas which were axed in September 2009.

For more information, please visit our page on Enterprise Migration Agreements.

Selection Model for General Skilled applicants

The new selection model will apply from 1 July 2012. This will mean that it will not be possible to apply for a general skilled migration visa directly. Instead, applicants lodge an "Expression of Interest" to apply for skilled migration, which is then considered by the Department of Immigration in issuing an invitation to actually lodge for the skilled visa. Refusal of an Expression of Interest does not lead to appeal rights, and quotas will be set each year for the number of invitations issued for each occupation. The intention of this initiative is to reduce the possiblity of a large backlog of skilled applications developing as it did in 2010 (the backlog peaked at over 150,000 applicants), and to limit the number of applications in a single occupation.

The model is similar in some ways to the skills matching subclass 134 visa which was abolished in September 2007.

More detailed information on this is available on our General Skilled Migration Selection Model page.

Migration (Skilled and Family) Program

The overall planning level for the migration program will be increased from 168,700 for 2010-11 to 185,000 for the 2011-12 year. Skilled migration will increase from 113,850 to 125,850 places, an increase of 11%. RSMS will increase by 5,000 places to 16,000 places, an increase of 45%. It is not yet clear where the remainder of the 7,000 increase in skilled migration will be allocated, but hopefully a substantial amount will be allocated to the general skilled program, which currently has a backlog of some 120,000 places.

Family migration places will increase by 4,050 places to 58,600 places. This will hopefully mean faster processing for partner applicants who are currently facing waits of 6 months or more for their visas. However, this figure is still below the 2009-10 figure for family migration of 60,000 places.

Regional Migration

Regional Migration is now to be a focus for the Australian migration program, with the following initiatives being announced last night:
  • Additional places for the RSMS (Regional Skilled Migration Scheme) for 2011-12.
  • The introduction of Regional Migration Agreements.
  • Enhanced Regional Outreach Strategy
Further information on these initiatives are on our Regional Initiatives in 2011-12 Budget page.

Regional Migration Agreements again are similar in effect to the 457 regional concessions which were abolished in September 2009. In terms of the government's faith in the RSMS visa, this has a familiar ring to it. Skilled Independent Regional (SIR) visas were introduced in July 2004 to much fanfare about the benefits which would result to regional areas. The SIR visa required sponsorship by a state or territory government, rather than an employer, and yet its results have been less than stellar.

Humanitarian (Refugee) Program

The Government announced an increase of 4,000 places in the humanitarian program over the next 4 years - this represents an increase of 1,000 places each year.

The additional 1,000 places will only be available to people residing in Malaysia under the new offshore processing arrangement. Under this arrangement, boat arrivals will be flown to Malaysia for processing. If they are found to be refugees, almost all will be resettled outside Australia. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to deter people smugglers by destroying their business model. This arrangement looks quite similar to the Pacific Solution negotiated with Nauru under the Howard Government.

Significant increases to funding for onshore detention centres, processing officers and implementing procedural fairness arrangements for offshore refugee applicants are allowed for in the budget. Total additional spending on the humanitarian program comes to some $450 million over the next 4 years, a truly staggering amount compared to the funding of the rest of the Department of Immigration's functions, and is summarised in the table below:

Afghanistan Passport and Visa Issuing System Capacity Building Project Phase III $9.7 m
Border Security - initiatives to address irregular population flow in source and transit countries $33.3 m
Border Security - reintegration assistance program - continuation $7.0 m
Humanitarian Migration Program - increase of 4,000 places $216.4 m
Refugee Status Determinations for offshore entry persons - streamlined processes $107.7 m
Regional Cooperation Framework - Transfer of Irregular Maritime Arrivals to Malaysia $75.9 m
TOTAL $450.0 m

Changes to Fees and Funding for Visa Processing

Fees for visa applications will increase by 15% from 1 July 2011. Student, tourist and onshore humanitarian visas will be exempt from these fee increases.

Fees for Migration Review Tribunal reviews will also be subject to the 10% price increase from 1 July 2011, and subject to CPI increase thereafter.

An additional $10 million will be spent on 457 visa processing initiatives to reduce median processing times to 10 days for this visa subclass, as well as changes to accommodate the new ERAs and RMAs. A new 457 visa processing center will be set up in Brisbane. 457 visas were previously processed in Brisbane, but processing was relocated to Sydney in July 2008.

Funding for visa processing will be reduced by some $198 million over the next 4 years and cuts will be made to Department of Immigration staff in corporate support, policy and program design and service delivery.

Significant fee increases for the migration stream are of concern, particularly as fees were increased by 20% only in July 2009. The proceeds for these increases are not insubstantial - some $294.9 over 4 years. Cuts to funding for processing and the reallocation of senior Department of Immigration staff to deal with the refugee stream only compound this concern. As a result, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Australian business and skilled migrants are paying for the cost of detaining, processing and resettlement of refugee applicants.

The chart below tracks the application fee for migration to Australia since 1999 (eg lodgement fee for an onshore ENS or partner visa):

historic migration application fees

Changes to Security Clearance Arrangements

ASIO will reduce the number of security clearances conducted for applicants for migration to Australia, and is budgeted to save $6.9 million over the next 4 years.

Under the new arrangements, security clearances will only be required where the applicant is likely to be a risk. However, security clearances will still be required for all boat arrivals. Currently, security clearances can lead to significant delays in processing of visa applications - these can take 12 months or more for some countries. This change is a welcome one as it removes a significant processing bottleneck, and it is hoped that processing times for people applying for migration to Australia can be reduced.


In coming up with a phrase to summarise the budget changes it was a close run between "back to the future" and "robbing Peter to pay Paul". It is astonishing how much funding and focus has been diverted to processing of refugee applicants (14,000 places per year) at the expense of the migration program (185,000 places). At the same time, visa applicants in the migration program are being slugged with a 15% fee increase.

Back to the future won out as a tag line - not just because so many of the proposed policies have been tried before - but also because it seems likely that processing of refugee applications will remain a political issue as it has been since the 2001 federal election and the infamous "Children Overboard" scandal.

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