Labor claims major foreign policy victory after federal parliament passed legislation authorizing the issuance of the Pacific Engagement Visa, opening the door for 3,000 Pacific people to settle permanently in Australia every year.
- New visa laws will allow up to 3,000 Pacific immigrants to settle in Australia each year
- Some Pacific countries have raised concerns that the Pacific engagement visa could cause a regional brain drain.
- Rights defenders hesitate to “gamify” the system for migrants
The federal government had struggled to get enough numbers to pass the bill through the Senate after the Coalition said it would oppose the government’s proposal to select visa applicants through a ballot random.
But Labor struck a deal with the Greens yesterday to gain their support in return for a government review of a controversial mechanism that allows it to reject temporary visa applications for disabled people, incurring significant costs for Australian taxpayers.
This morning, the visa legislation was returned to the House with minor amendments, meaning it will pass.
Pacific Affairs Minister Pat Conroy welcomed the move as a crucial part of the Albanian government’s efforts to build a Pacific diaspora in Australia.
“This is a policy that we adopted in the last election, and it is revolutionary in nature,” he told the ABC.
“People-to-people connections are one of the essential ways to rebuild ties with the Pacific and are the partner of choice.”
Shadow Pacific Minister Michael McCormack said while the Coalition supported the government’s efforts to build closer ties with the Pacific, it remained opposed to the vote.
“We maintain that Australian citizenship is too valuable to be decided by lottery,” he said.
“Now that the Bill has been passed, it will be up to the Government to demonstrate that the lottery mechanism and the Pacific Engagement Visa serve the interests of Australia and participating countries, and that they have the support of Pacific countries.”
Some lawyers also expressed concerns about the voting mechanism.
Immigration Advice and Rights Center (IARC) principal lawyer Joshua Strutt said while he welcomed more opportunities for migration from the Pacific to Australia, the vote was a ” game of chance”.
“The gamification of the migration system is not fair to anyone. The IARC is calling for clearer and more secure pathways to permanent residency in Australia for Pacific Island nationals,” he said.
“We found that people put their lives on hold for years, waiting for their name to be chosen at random. The system needs to be better. People need certainty.”
But the government maintains the vote will ensure fair access to Australia and help avoid a brain drain from the Pacific.
Professor Stephen Howes, of the Australian National University, said the voting system had worked well for a similar visa system in New Zealand.
“The New Zealand visa is popular and widely accepted, so it makes perfect sense for Australia to follow the path set by New Zealand,” he told the ABC.
Professor Howes said the timing of the legislation would also work well for Labor, ahead of a crucial meeting of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders in the Cook Islands in early November.
“We’re heading into the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting… and we know the whole issue of visa-free access is going to come up,” he said.
“This is not something Australia is prepared to concede, but Australia can view this very important initiative as a practical way to make travel to Australia much easier.”
Hopes to unite the region
While some Pacific countries have privately raised concerns that the Pacific engagement visa could exacerbate skills shortages in the region, some senior Pacific politicians have enthusiastically supported the proposal.
Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister, Biman Prasad, told the ABC the visa would promote business investment between Australia and the Pacific, while “allowing ideas and innovation to move from country to country.” the other “.
“In a broader sense, this is part of a broader strategy to integrate the region in the long term,” he said.
“And also considering geopolitics, such a union of the region will benefit the entire region.”
He also dismissed concerns that the visa was fueling a brain drain in the Pacific.
“You think everyone will suddenly pack their bags, but that’s not going to happen,” he told ABC.
“In fact, it could create an environment where people feel like opportunity exists and there would be more stability.”
The government still wants to pass separate legislation through Parliament that would give Pacific engagement visa holders access to additional welfare benefits.
The country is committed to opening the program in the first half of next year, allowing the first visa holders to settle in Australia later in 2024.
Pat Conroy said the federal government was still determining exactly how the 3,000 places would be distributed among different Pacific countries.
“We are working on what we disclose, but I think there are good reasons for country allocations to be made public,” he said.
The minister said places would be allocated “largely but not completely” based on the populations of different countries, and that Australia would ensure Pacific nations were “comfortable” with their allocations.
He also said some of the 13 Pacific countries eligible for the program may not participate until the second year.
“Some countries are very enthusiastic and want to participate in the early rollout, and others have said they will step back and participate in the second year,” he said.
Professor Howes said this was a potentially transformative moment in Australia’s relationship with the Pacific.
“This is the first time we have had a window into the Pacific, not on our temporary migration program, but on our permanent migration program,” he told the ABC.
“It certainly puts the Pacific in a very high status.”