NATIONAL AFFAIRS EDITORSydney@simonbenson
The annual permanent migration intake has fallen by more than 10 per cent to less than 163, 000, marking the lowest level for more than a decade on the back of a crackdown on fraudulent claims and a sharp rise in visa refusals under the government’s new integrity measures.
The Australian has confirmed that tougher vetting rules imposed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have cut 21, 000 from the annual intake, returning it to levels last seen in 2007.
A report by the Department of Home Affairs has revealed the total number of people allowed under the migration program fell from 183, 608 to 162, 417 in a year, having hit a peak of 190, 000 under the Rudd and Gillard governments.
The cut to the 2017-18 intake represents the largest single-year decrease in more than a decade and has been attributed to new integrity measures applied to the system following the discovery of a high number of fraudulent claims being made every year.
The significant reduction in the permanent migration program comes amid fierce public debate over the issue and a heated dispute within government ranks about annual immigration settings and arguments that Australia’s congested capital cities cannot absorb the current numbers.
The Australian has confirmed that the integrity measures resulted in a 46 per cent increase in visas being refused and a further 17 per cent rise in applications being withdrawn due to the greater scrutiny. The number of applications processed remained at similar levels.
The numbers show a drop of about 12, 468 in the skilled migrant stream to 111, 099 this year.
The largest fall was in the family stream — predominantly spousal visas — which was slashed by almost 15 per cent to 47, 732 with a minor drop in special eligibility.
The number of child placements, primarily requiring ministerial intervention, has been largely maintained.
It is understood the lower numbers will require an estimates variation in next year’s budget as migration levels are linked to economic growth.
The Australian reported earlier this year that Mr Dutton had suggested to cabinet colleagues last year that the official ceiling of 190, 000 should be cut by 20, 000. However, the issue was not raised at a cabinet level.
The reduction in numbers, in line with what was said to have been proposed, has come about due to the department’s assessment processes and follow the Turnbull government’s decision to change Labor’s “target” of 190, 000 to a ceiling.
Annual reports reveal the numbers have been falling — from 189, 770 in 2015-16 to 183, 608 last year — having peaked at the 190, 000 target under the Rudd and Gillard governments.
This year’s intake is the lowest since 2007-08, when it was 158, 630.
Mr Dutton has accused the former Labor government of presiding over a “tick and flick” process to meet its annual quota, reducing the integrity of the system.
This was at a time when more than 1000 people were also arriving on asylum-seeker boats per month and being put on bridging visas.
“The Coalition has restored our borders and reintroduced integrity into our migration program, ” Mr Dutton told The Australian. “We ended the chaos Labor created on our borders by stopping the boats and we abolished Labor’s discredited 457 visa program. What these figures show is that we have also strengthened Australia’s permanent visa program by ending Labor’s slavish drive for quantity and replacing it with a sharper focus on integrity and quality.
“I want the migration program to work for Australians, not just the migrants themselves. On my watch, we will continue to seek out those migrants who will make the best contribution to our country, including in our regions.”
Malcolm Turnbull told The Australian that one of the functions of the immigration department, which is part of the Department of Home Affairs, was to be a “recruitment agency for Australia to bring in the best and brightest”. “We should not bring in one more person than we want or we need, ” the Prime Minister said. The department cites the skilled stream as designed to improve the “productive capacity of the economy and fill skill shortages in the labour market, including those in regional Australia”.
The family stream is predominantly made up of partner visas, whiles the special eligibility stream covers visas for those in special circumstances who do not fit into the other streams and includes visas granted under ministerial intervention.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott triggered debate within the Coalition partyroom over immigration numbers, claiming they should be cut significantly because of insufficient infrastructure and community concerns over integration.
He said he had sought to reduce migrant numbers when he was prime minister but had been stonewalled by Treasury officials who claimed that lowering the intake would damage the budget.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has called for the immigration level to be cut to 75, 000 a year and accused the Coalition and Labor of ignoring the issue.
A report released by Treasury and the Department of Home Affairs in April, which tracked the history of migration in Australian over 50 years, claimed that it would add up to one percentage point to GDP growth each year for 30 years.