The Australian Productivity Commission is currently in the final stages of an inquiry into a priced-based immigrant selection system. The proposal is that the current range of approximately 140 different visa sub-classes covering investor, skills, family and spousal will all be dumped and, subject to existing health and character checks, permanent residence will instead depend on an entry fee, estimated to be in the vicinity of $50,000. Government unemployment and housing benefits will also be denied for a period of time, possibly ten years.
This could be a truly revolutionary change in the way Australia manages its immigration. If there is one thing that stands out about our current system it is the way, to borrow from a euphemism used in American immigration discussions, ‘undocumented’ modifications to underlying immigration principles have permeated our intake over the years. When, under our existing system, so many people are accepted due to subjective decisions made by persons in authority, the parameters for abuse of process can be immense. Are we expected to believe that unconscious or conscious bias, taking the soft option of always giving the applicant the benefit of the doubt, conflict of interest, fraud or outright bribery do not exist?
In 2013 The Australian reported a former Immigration Department official claiming the refugee determination process is easily scammed. He referred to asylum-seekers ‘enhancing and inventing’ claims that satisfy one level or another of the multi-layered refugee status determination and appeals procedures. Another official, a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal stated that asylum-seekers on Christmas Island told him they had simply copied their claims from other applicants who had been successful.
Last year in Brisbane a corrupt immigration official, Alex Allan, was sentenced to eight month’s jail for receiving over half a million dollars in bribes, while in 2014 the Sydney Morning Herald reported a more efficient immigration official was able to accrue three million dollars in bribes before absconding overseas. The paper has also detailed a 2009 Immigration Department report where a Victorian “significant cottage industry” involving migration agents, employers and education providers facilitated foreign students attaining permanent residency for $50,000 This figure seems to be a popular choice for those in “the industry” as it was also mentioned in a 2003 Senate Inquiry titled ‘Ministerial Discretion in Migration Matters’. Under questioning from Senator Penny Wong, migration solicitor David Prince declared he had knowledge of applicants paying $50,000 on the promise of securing a visa.
Under section 417 of the Migration Act 1958, the Minister for Immigration can, in most circumstances, intervene and grant a visa where an applicant has received a negative decision from a review tribunal, and there are “unique or exceptional circumstances”. Between 1996 and 2003 then immigration ministers intervened and granted over 1,900 visas, resulting in approximately 300 per year. If we first look at the word ‘unique’, the meaning refers to a situation that happens only once, or at most once in a generation. Adding the word ‘exceptional’ would broaden the concept a few degrees, but are we really expected to believe that, 300 times a year, every year, some collection of circumstances relating to immigration can be described as unique or exceptional?
The Australian Financial Review revealed in 2014 that a 2010 Department of Immigration report stated “evidence uncovered to date indicates that fraud within the general skilled migration program is extensive with estimates at around 90 per cent . . . [or] more than 40,000 suspect visa applications lodged per year for the last three years". A confidential department report of 2013, written by a still-serving immigration official, revealed “…the agency's declining capacity to investigate fraud against its own programs''. It went on to declare ''Major organisers of fraud on Australia's immigration and citizenship programs realistically need have little fear of detection, arrest and prosecution.
One virtue of our current system is that it doesn’t discriminate against rorters who can’t afford a $50,000 bribe. If you have the ability to manufacture the charm and sincerity when needed, you can convince an Australian that you have finally found your soulmate, and then take that person to be your lawfully wedded spouse for the rest of your natural life, or until your permanent residence is finalised, whichever comes first.
When one looks at the statistics of Australian marriages they are truly surprising. According to the ABS, in 2013 31.6% of the 118,959 marriages in Australia involved individuals from two different countries. So if that 38,000 Australians in Australia married foreigners, and considering we are a developed country with ample means to travel, is it not reasonable that approximately another 38,000 Australians overseas, holidaying or working, also married foreigners? This theoretically leaves us with just over 81,000 Australians marrying locals while 76,000 marrying other nationalities: almost one in two.
What is it about our upbringing and culture that develops some type of self-loathing such that almost every second Australian looks elsewhere for a life partner? Perhaps the truth may simple be that the high rate of foreign marriages are mostly not marriages of true love, but marriages of deceit, receiving payment or granting a favour or succumbing to family arrangements, so as to gain or allow Australian permanent residence.
For those who would fail the current 60 points criteria test, they would still have the option, subject to their personal ethics, of arranging false documentation or engaging in a sham marriage. It therefore follows that a by-product of our existing immigration system is that there are many circumstances where applicants, because of their honesty, fail, while others, because of their mendacity, succeed. Last year former Immigration Minister Chris Bowen declared "We weren't the first government to deal with immigration fraud and we won't be the last." But does it have to be like that? True, health and character checks can never be perfect and may always entail some small levels of abuse, but after that, a flat fee for everyone will drastically reduce, if not eradicate, the remaining corruption. In fact, if the government insisted the $50,000 were deposited as the first step in the process, then holding it as surety against dishonest declarations or later criminal behaviour would further improve the character of the intake.
Family and spousal intakes would still exist, but they would only involve genuine filial feelings. Even the humanitarian intake would improve, in that it would better reflect the wishes of the public, as Australian charitable NGOs would now be able choose, under direction from their individual financial supporters, who and how many should be offered free access.
To its credit, the Productivity Commission released in November a draft report indicating to those concerned where it was heading with its conclusion. However perhaps not to its credit, in deciding not to accept the price-based concept explained in its 557 pages and 185,000 words covering many aspects of current immigration, it made almost no comment in response to the perennial fraud in permanent immigration as identified by our erstwhile Immigration Minister. What it did do was suggest abolition of the Visa Investor scheme because of its fraud (an abolition that would have been ancillary with a price-based system anyway), and quote 46 words relating to corruption from one of its received submissions.
The Commission’s argument against the proposal, as summarised in its press release, was that in the long term, Australia would not financially benefit from the system. This is rather surprising for two reasons: what could be the financial drawback to Australia that would outweigh the estimated seven billion dollars per year in visa payments; and is it appropriate that Australia’s fiscal outlook should be the sole consideration in immigration?
When America engaged in the experiment of Prohibition last century, two of the reasons it was soon abolished was the often injury to drinkers from the consumption of ‘moonshine’ alcohol, and the corruptive effect Prohibition had upon many levels of government, from customs, to the police, to the judiciary. Does it really count for nothing that a propensity many of our new immigrants are bringing to Australia is their willingness to engage in subterfuge, and the corruption of some of our officials and even citizens, that ensues?
The current egregiously venal system granting the great privilege of Australian residence has to go. We have to take the influence of abuse of process out of the intake and replace it with an open and non-subjective manner: selection decided not by bureaucrats and politicians, but by those productive enough to afford the fee; by those Australian families willing to pay to bring in a loved family member; and those millions of Australians willing to sponsor, with their own small or large contributions, the humanitarian intake.