Two different figures for the exactly the same thing? Visas, immigration and data transparency

Data transparency does not have many supporters when discussing public policy. Many people may say they support more transparent and accountable disclosure of data but the fact remains it simply doesn’t exist. The revealed preference of the elite public service and political class is for as much privacy as possible in relation to data generated by and for government operations.

This leads to basic errors and misunderstanding. In some research I am undertaking, I want to know how many people on Working Holiday Makers visas transferred to working on a 457 visa in 2012-13. This will assist with understanding how the Australian visa framework operates and how these visas classes interact with the labour market. This is far from the most important topic going around but the information should be important for policy makers and those with strong interest (or opinions) on immigration programs.

So, how many working holiday makers transferred to 457 visas in 2012-13? I’ve narrowed it down to either 9743 or 12,860.

One source (AE14/217, .pdf 1.6mb) shows how many people transferred to 457 visas in 2012-13 when already in Australia and which visa they transferred from. The total of the two Working Holiday visa categories (417 and 462) is 9743.

Another source (AE14/230, .pdf 0.1mb) shows a table of people who transfer from a Working Holiday visa to other visas in Australia for the year 2012-13. In the row for the 457 visa, the number of people is 12,860.

These figures should be the same. They are for the same time period and for the same visas. But they aren’t even close.

It’s easy enough to mark this down to a mistake from departmental officers who are rushed at pulling together massive amounts of data in a short period of time. I do not deny this.

But this is symptomatic of the disregard the Department of Immigration has for a more transparent method of distributing basic visa information.

Instead of regularly releasing figures and statistics, this data was usurped from the department visa Senate Estimates questioning. If I was a Senator looking at these results, I wouldn’t know what to think. Further, I would begin to doubt the accuracy of all of the data provided.

The Department could easily rectify these issues by providing access to a database which contained the raw information for all the major visa classes, with private information such as names and employers removed. This database would not be unique. In the Settlement area, this type of database exists without any privacy concerns.

I often heard complaints within the Department about the lack of research around immigration debates. Yet by continuing to lock up information, it is all but impossible for those interested to seriously engage in research and further our understanding of policy.

There is a wealth of information which could transform our understanding of how immigration operates in Australia hidden from the public and those interested. Finding better ways to make this accessible would provide untold benefits for policy makers over the long-term.

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