Two weeks before the federal election on July 2, Labor announced an immigration policy for parents of permanent residents and Australian citizens. With first-generation migrants driving high population growth since the turn of the millennium, a growing demand for family reunion has bubbled away under the surface of immigration policy, out of sight from the day-to-day decisions and media attention.

Because of this, you likely wouldn’t have read about Labor’s new policy in the paper, nor seen any reporting on the nightly news (apart from SBS). Targeted at ethnic media, community leaders and social media, this was a major pitch for ethnic community support, going beyond the now standard cash grants and local promises thrown around at election time. This was a substantial policy change with big implications for both ethnic communities and Australian immigration policy.

Family reunion is really difficult for parents of new migrants. Outside of receiving a skilled visa themselves, there are three main pathways for parents to join their children in Australia: constant disruption, outrageous costs or the patience (and health) to wait 25 years.

The first pathway, and most common, is to visit on rolling 12-month tourist visas. The catch is you need to spend at least six months outside of Australia at the end of each visa. It is difficult to estimate how many tens of thousands of people are doing this to be with their family in Australia, but the number is large and growing. Despite the constant travel, churn and disruption, this is often the only option available to people.

The second pathway is to pay. A “contributory parent visa” costs approximately $43,000 before you add in migration advice and other fees. This visa is permanent, removes the uncertainty of being away from family and having to leave Australia constantly. For two parents, you are looking at over $90,000 in various fees and charges, a price out of range for the majority of first-generation migrants.

The third pathway is to wait. The standard parent visa only costs $3870, however the current processing time is “Up to 30 years”. For example, if I lodged my standard parent visa application on July 1, 2016, there are 38,790 people ahead of me in the queue. Perhaps this means contributory parent visas are the real queue jumpers? Perhaps it just means the system is fundamentally broken.

Visa waiting queue position

In 2015-16, there were 7175 contributory parent visas available and 1500 standard parent visas. Take 1500 per year and divvy it up between 38,790 people, and you get a 25-year wait.

Away from the cost or the wait, the other significant regulatory reason parents cannot join their children in Australia is the “Balance of Family” test for any parent visa (note: this does not apply for rolling tourist visas). The test requires “that at least half of your children live permanently in Australia, or that more of your children live permanently in Australia than in any other country”. Many parents who wish to migrate to Australia cannot meet this test. This regulatory test is also the primary reason why the push has come from subcontinent communities, as opposed to the Chinese community where the one-child policy means this is largely irrelevant.

Back to the election.

Labor’s policy took the modern staple of Australian migration policy — a temporary visa — and combined it with a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, a focus on family instead of the economy. Labor would provide parents of Australian permanent residents and citizens with a three-year continuous visitor visa if they held private health insurance, paid a $5000 bond and were nominally sponsored by their Australian child. And the kicker was to get another visa, you would only have to spend a month outside of Australia.

This would be a simple, straightforward process so often lacking from immigration policy. However it would also have massive knock-on effects, embedding a new generation of older migrants in Australian society as temporary residents with no access to Medicare or the aged pension. This was the trade-off: allowing family reunion in migrant communities but without full access to the welfare state. Once again, the question of numbers versus rights appears in immigration policy. The fact this was hardly sustainable over even a decade was irrelevant two weeks before an election. This could be a PFG (a problem for government).

Off the back of a real grassroots campaign from subcontinent communities, Labor saw an opportunity to directly appeal to small but important electoral group across a number of key marginal seats, such as Reid, Banks and Chisholm. Many of these families were the definition of aspirational: first-generation skilled workers, earning above average salaries and living in growing suburbs with high house prices requiring dual incomes. Who was looking after the children? What about the strong cultural connotations of family and the place of grandparents in the family for many of these ethnic communities? These are powerful arguments and difficult to argue against but they also pose questions immigration policy is poorly equipped to answer.

*Read the rest at On the Move blog

*Henry Sherrell is a former Department of Immigration staffer

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey