A country’s visa regime may not on the surface seem too consequential to its overall national strategy. However, it can explain a lot about its approach to the world and the ambition it has for itself. As a migrant nation, with a birth-rate below the replacement level, Australia relies heavily on an array of different visas to facilitate its need for new people. But often the processes Canberra has in place work against its desire to enhance the country’s capabilities.
When the Labor Party entered office in late May this year, it was faced with a backlog of close to 1 million visa applications. Last month this prompted new Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil to instigate a review of Australia’s visa system, which she described as “totally broken.” O’Neil recognized that Australia is “in a global war for talent” and that its current visa regime was an impediment to it being able to attract and retain skilled migrants. She stated that “Australia is not going to be a destination of choice because it takes too long, it’s too expensive. And even if you make it here, you probably can’t stay. We need to rethink that.”
Prior to the review’s completion in February 2023, the government has already recognized that its objective should be to shift the focus of the nation’s immigration system away from short-term visas and toward permanent migration. Creating a positive sense of belonging for migrants is not possible when individuals and families lack security about their future, and it also cannot come from a visa system that is mired in suspicion and strips people of their savings. As one of the goals of immigration is to prevent a rise in Australia’s median age, visa fees that are unaffordable for younger people who don’t have significant savings makes little sense.
At present that lack of agility in the visa system prevents Australia from being able to capitalize on global trends and conditions in other countries. As the University of Melbourne’s Jay Song highlighted in a recent article for Foreign Policy, there is an alignment between South Korea’s surplus of skilled youth and Australia’s current labor shortages. With Australia’s desire to enhance relations with South Korea this should be seen as an opportunity to significantly enhance people-to-people links, but a cumbersome visa system may prove an impediment.
Australia’s visa system should be seen as a central pillar of its international relations. It represents how Australia views the world – whether it primarily sees people from other countries as a threat – but it also represents how the country wishes to build its own economic, security, and cultural capabilities. The decline of birth rates throughout much of the world means that those countries with the ability to attract, accommodate, and retain people will be at a major strategic advantage.
Earlier this month I attended the Helsinki Security Forum. In conversations I had with many of Europe’s most influential elites they neither knew much about Australia nor spent much time thinking about Australia. This may have been because it was a Europe-centric conference and Australia has successfully shifted itself to being an Asia-centric country, but it could also be because there just isn’t enough of Australia to warrant much attention. If Australia believes itself to be a force for good in the world, this should be considered a serious problem.
Australia has the advantage of being a migrant country. Currently is has has an annual immigration intake of 195,000 people. But a similar country – and major rival for talent – Canada, has an immigration intake over 430,000 people per year, which is set to rise to 450,000 in 2024. Ottawa has made the calculation that as the United States is becoming a less reliable security partner Canada needs to significantly increase its own capabilities. This is a perspective Australia should share.
There is no reason why this should be considered too difficult for Australia. Politicians may instinctively fear creating the kind of dangerous backlash against migration that is present in many European countries. Yet Australia has done a remarkable job of shifting from a homogeneous, insular society to a highly diverse, globally connected nation in an incredibly short period of time. It has done so while maintaining a positive social stability. May’s federal election produced a parliament that is now starting to look a lot more like Australian society at large.
Immigration is one of the primary tools Australia has at its disposal to become a more secure, more prosperous and more influential country. A visa regime that makes it more difficult to achieve that objective is self-defeating. A system that instead is quick, easy, predictable, and cheap would demonstrate that Australia is a confident and ambitious country, not a fretful, suspicious and timid one.