Australia will launch a lottery to bring 3000 foreign workers into the country every year under a new law to be proposed that adapts the “green card” system used in the United States to give the winners a pathway to citizenship.
In a departure from decades of visa policy, the federal government will open the scheme to people from across the Pacific so they can apply for permanent residency in the hope of winning the random selection.
But the two-step scheme will require those who succeed at the first stage to secure a job offer in Australia and meet tests to check their health, character and basic English skills before they can arrive. The applicants also have to be aged from 18 to 45.
The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, says the draft law will be introduced to federal parliament on Thursday with a vow to build up communities in Australia with strong ties to the region.
“This is the first time that we’ve allocated part of our permanent migration allocation to a specific region – and it is revolutionary,” he said.
“The reason we’re doing it is a desire to build the people-to-people links with the Pacific, and one of the best ways of doing that is building our Pacific diaspora.”
The scheme is meant to start in July and is being discussed with regional leaders ahead of the Pacific Island Forum next week, where Foreign Minister Penny Wong will represent Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a time of heightened sensitivity about China’s influence in the region.
Albanese and Wong launched a major diplomatic effort after the election last year to improve relations in the region after tensions under the former government, with the new visa scheme pitched as one way to tighten Australia’s links with each country.
A key reason for the lottery is the concern in the region about the unfairness of a visa system that would select people on a hierarchical list of skills, leading to an exodus of people with specific skills from each country.
Applicants from other countries seeking permanent residency under the skills program are currently waiting about six months for decisions, according to the Department of Home Affairs, but they will not be eligible for the new programme.
As well as East Timor (Timor-Leste), the new scheme will be open to applicants from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
It will be separate from the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility programme, which is an important source of farmworkers and has been expanded from 29,000 to 35,000 places under changes in the budget last October.
Only 0.7 percent of Australia’s permanent migration intake is from the Pacific, with 999 accepted in the past financial year, in a sign of the competitive nature of the programme.
The new scheme will triple that intake – depending upon whether it is fully subscribed – but without taking places away from the existing permanent migration programme.
“We’ve modelled it on successful schemes operating in the United States with the green card, and New Zealand has a couple of schemes, so importantly, it will be a random selection to make it as fair as possible,” Conroy said.
“The most important thing is that the applicants have a job offer before the visa is granted. They’re allowed to bring their families.
“And we recognise that this cohort of migrants will be from a lower socio-economic background than our typical permanent migrants, so it’s really important that they have adequate social support.
“They’ll have immediate access to the social security safety net – things like Family Tax Benefit, Medicare – so they have maximum support to build their lives in Australia.”
Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton cut the permanent intake to 160,000 five years ago but Labor increased the program to 195,000 after discussing the changes at the jobs summit last September.
The new scheme will be called the Pacific Engagement Visa and will cost $175 million (US$120 million) over four years and then $80 million (US$55 million) a year from 2026, but this does not take into account an increase in income tax worth $55 million (US$37 million) over the first four years and about $35 million (US$24 million) a year after that.
Anxiety about the Pacific intensified during last year’s election campaign when China struck a security deal with Solomon Islands and Albanese traded barbs with then prime minister Scott Morrison in election campaign debates about security in the region.
Labor pledged to increase overseas aid for the Pacific by $525 million (US$361 million) during the election campaign but increased this to a $900 million (US$619 million) boost over four years in the October budget, taking the assistance in this financial year to $1.9 billion (US$1.3 billion), a record high.
Labor also promised the Pacific Engagement Visa in the weeks before polling day, along with spending $8 million a year on regional broadcasting and funding an Australia-Pacific Defence School.
While the concept of the ballot was included in the details when the Parliamentary Budget Office costed the election promise, there was little debate at the time about the new approach to deciding who could qualify for a visa….PACNEWS