This week’s 2016-17 pre-election Australian federal budget was unsurprising in terms of programme initiatives affecting Australia’s immigration framework. What is worth noting is that the budget solidifies the emerging trend in government towards a leaner operating model, with a reduction in funding for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and an expectation of reduced expenses but increased user-generated revenue. This trend has already impacted users of the Australian immigration programme over the past two to three years, and has significant ongoing implications for the quality, consistency and timeliness of immigration decisions.
Planned 2016-17 budget measures to generate revenue in the years leading up to 2020 include:
- Expansion of a user-pays fast-track visa processing service initially to citizens of India and the UAE (currently being trialled for Chinese citizens only – read our recent blog for further details);
- Introduction of premium border clearance services at Sydney, Melbourne and Perth international airports;
- Visa Application Charge revenue generation through increased volume of visa applications, particularly visitor visas; and
- Increases to customs duties.
Measures to reduce costs include:
- Closure of four onshore detention centres, bringing the total number of centres closed since 2013 to 17;
- Reduction in staffing numbers; and
- Reforming the visa and migration framework by “improving automation in visa processing, providing self-service options and using more sophisticated assessment capabilities”.
TOP 5 IMPLICATIONS FOR USERS OF AUSTRALIA’S IMMIGRATION PROGRAMME
- Automated decision-making means less real service and direct contact with decision-makers: obtaining strategic advice before lodging any application has never been more important.
- Priority service comes at a price: DIBP’s user-pays approach is now entrenched, and we expect this to be rolled out across various areas of the broader programme in due course.
- Processing times will blow out for certain visas, such that they may no longer be a commercially viable option for some users. For example, subclass 457 visa applications are now taking two to three months to process, an unreasonably long period for some Australian businesses with urgent labour shortages. Strategic advice should be sought to ensure business needs can be met.
- Faster outcomes can be expected for certain low-risk applications through automated and self-service models. These models can assist certain individuals and businesses seeking to access Australia’s migration programme. The key is knowing whether you fall into one of these categories, and how to make it work for you.
- Applicants using self-service options may find themselves stung by a failure to comprehend underlying complex legislation and policy: seeking professional assistance in the first instance can avoid costly mistakes with significant repercussions.
The budgetary focus on automation, small government and efficiency means that DIBP plans to use fewer staff to make more decisions by taking a risk-based approach to decision-making and relying more heavily upon automated decision-making processes. Attention will be on minimising interventions in deemed low-risk areas (for example, by granting longer-term visitor visas to ‘low-risk’ applicants) while dedicating resources to high-risk areas (such as security and applications by ‘high-risk’ applicants).
Recent DIBP initiatives to improve processing have often resulted in a lack of certainty and consistency for visa applicants and sponsors. One such initiative is the introduction of the ‘pool-based’ processing system for certain applications, including the subclass 457 Temporary Work visa programme, whereby applications are not assigned to any particular case officer but may be handled by several different officers at various stages of the case. This system, introduced to ‘improve efficiency’, has resulted in a lack of accountability and responsibility for applications, a blow-out in processing times and, at times, poor decision-making. Another initiative is the outsourcing of partner visa applications lodged in Australia to various Australian diplomatic missions around the world for processing; some applications are now processed in countries with little or no connection to the visa applicant or their sponsor.
It has never been harder to have direct contact with immigration decision-makers and we predict that this problem will worsen. This lack of direct contact gives rise to concern about transparent decision-making and necessitates strong advocacy on behalf of clients to ensure their applications are properly received and fairly considered.
DIBP promotes their self-service application model as the ideal way for individuals and businesses to interact with the department. However, the legislation and policy which lies behind this model has become no less complex. Applicants can be lulled into a false sense of security by the relative ease of lodging their own application, not realising that an innocent mistake or incorrect answer could lead to an application being refused, a visa cancelled or even removal from Australia and bans upon further entry for a specified period.
What does the budget mean for immigration? More self-service and automation. Less transparency in decision making. Same complicated legislation and policy. Higher risks without professional support. Contact Nomos to discuss your immigration and citizenship needs.