What do we really think about parent visas?

Parent visas used to be either; expensive with a quick waiting period or cheap with a long waiting period. In the this year’s Budget, the Abbott government removed the latter option. Given the price of the remaining parent visa (ranging between $40,000 to $50,000 per visa), this will preclude people who cannot afford the visa from joining their offspring.

According to this article on SBS, there were 2150 cheap places available in 2013-14, with a waiting list of near 32,000. These people will still be eligible but no new cheap parent visas can be applied for. Alternatively, there were 6575 places available for the more expensive option, with a waiting list of over 12,000. This translates into waiting periods of approximately 12-14 years and 1-2 years for the respective visa pathways.

There was some rather negative feedback in response to the government’s decision. This op-ed in the Age by noted immigration expert Mary Crock and Kate Bones was scathing. The debate in parliament featured speeches by Richard Marles and Michelle Rowland (shadow Assistant Minister for Immigration) condemning the move. Anthony Albanese spoke up for inner western Sydney.

In a void, I agree there should be a cheap pathway for parents to migrate and live with their families. After children and spouses, this is perhaps the most important familial link which exists. I don’t think this is a human right but it is important for a number of reasons, particularly for some individuals in relation to caring.

However we don’t deal with abstracts. Scott Morrison has a point about the extensive waiting lists. They are excessive and place a heavy social cost on all people who apply under that visa category. The visa pathway is highly uncertain, not in terms of outcome but process. Such an extensive wait places difficult demands on family units.

To better understand this issue, we can look at changes to Parent visas after the ALP won the 2007 election:

2007-08 2008-09 2013-14 2014-15
Cheap 1000 2000 2150 1500
Expensive 3500 6500 6575 7175

(Sources: 2007-08, 2008-09, 2012-13)

(Note: the 2007-08 was included in the last Howard/Costello budget)

The ALP immediately increased the number of parent visas in both categories. However the expensive category was increased by 3000 places compared to 1000 places in the cheap category. Before closing the cheap route, the Coalition has reduced the number of places available.

This follows a pattern. When the contributory parent visa was first introduced, Penny Wong called the legislation “inequitable and unfair” (see here for the legislation). Despite this, it was agreed to by the ALP (see here and here). This decision signalled agreement to a system where the government reaps substantial fiscal benefit from one type of visa over another.

The ALP also had a chance to put a serious dent in the waiting queues for cheap parent visas. While they doubled the number of places available in 2008-09, further increases were not proposed. This partially explains how the waiting period grew to the current status.

Politically and in terms of policy, it is fair to say the ALP support parent visas more than the Coalition. This can be seen from the table above. Despite this, the current outcry by the ALP would look a lot more substantial if; a) more had been done in the past to reduce waiting periods and, b) an alternative solution be proposed to the status quo. In neither Marles or Rowland’s speeches was an alternative proposal raised. What happens if the waiting period expands to 20 years? 25? Eventually the idea of such a wait becomes rather morbid.

Simply keeping a small number of cheap, non-contributory parent visas will only exacerbate the entire visa category as more migrants become eligible to sponsor their parents. While other policy tools were introduced (such as temporary parent visas), there is an issue with such extensive waiting periods.

Regardless of what is said, the revealed preference of both ALP and Coalition governments is to make immigration policy as efficient (a preference for skilled migrants over family migrants) and revenue friendly (expensive visas) as possible.

Family visas are important. Yet in the pecking order, parent visas are less important than spouses and child visas and therefore the most likely to get squeezed.

Abolishing all the cheap visa placements denies family connections to poorer migrants, an ‘inequitable and unfair’ policy. But a suitable alternative policy is required. There will always be a limited supply of parent visas because of the fiscal burden parents of migrants place on government expenditure.

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