A new temporary parent visa threatens to create second-class Australians

16 November 2016

Migrants have welcomed a proposed long-term temporary visa for parents, but Australia should be wary of restrictions on residents in a democracy, writes Dr Anna Boucher and co-authors.

A stock image photograph of a mother and daughter in an embrace.

It's estimated temporary parent visas could generate up to 30,000 new migrants annually – but the proposal could pose myriad problems for the holders. Image: iStock

In the final fortnight of the federal election campaign both the Coalition and Labor responded to lobbying from the migrant community with promises to create a new long-term, temporary visa for parents.

The pledges went largely unreported, as did the recent discussion paper from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection inviting public comment on a making a five-year, renewable parent visa a reality. Yet the temporary visa proposal is problematic: without access to government benefits and services – including the aged pension and Medicare – these older, mostly non-English speaking migrants will join an emerging cohort of second-class Australians who are denied full membership of society.

The strong desire of migrant families to bring parents to join them in Australia is understandable, so the push for a temporary, rather than a permanent parent visa, might seem strange. But this reflects growing frustration with existing options.

Currently there are two ways to bring a parent to Australia permanently.

The first involves waiting up to 30 years for a visa, by which time your parents are likely to be too old to migrate or dead. The second requires paying a fee of around $50,000 per parent in order to jump the processing queue. (This expedited application takes two to four years.) A third option is to bring parents to Australia on a tourist visa: they can stay for up to 12 months but must then leave for at least six months before applying to return.

Permanency, without security

The push for a renewable, long-term, temporary visa is a “second best” response to these unpalatable choices. It has won strong support from migrant families, who increasingly come from cultures where parents/grandparents play a large role in everyday life. Parental reunion is thus not viewed as “something nice to have” but as an essential cultural norm and, often indeed, as a filial obligation.

But parent migration is difficult because it is imposes significant costs on the Australian community.

Parents generally arrive in Australia at the end of their working lives and are likely to need increasing medical care and other services as they age. The Productivity Commission estimates that every parent who migrates permanently costs the budget $335,000 to $410,000 over their lifetime. So while the number of permanent visas is small – 8,700 per year – the cost to public revenues is disproportionately large.

The new temporary parent visa is designed to allow many more parents to migrate to Australia, while avoiding these fiscal costs via a user pays principle: parent migrants must have private medical insurance and their Australian sponsors (their adult children) must show that they have the resources to support them if necessary. Sponsors will also have to post a bond to offset costs to the taxpayer should the Australian government have to care for their parents.

This might look like a win-win arrangement but it has potential pitfalls. While the proposed five-year visa is described as temporary, it is also renewable, so parents could end up living out the rest of their lives in Australia on a series of temporary visas. They would be, for all intents and purposes, permanent residents, without any of the rights of permanent status, remaining outside the welfare safety net and wholly reliant on family for care and assistance. They would be living in a democracy but denied political representation and the right to vote.

A growing population of elderly, non-English speaking migrants stuck on temporary visas is not a positive development in Australia’s migration story and should be opposed.

Not good policy

Based on existing demand for permanent parent visas, we estimate that a temporary visa could generate between 10,000 and 30,000 new migrants per year, adding significantly to Australia’s population over time. Yet the Department of Immigration and Border Protection was unable to provide data to test these numbers. We were told that statistics on the number of parents who currently stay with family on 12-month tourist visas were “not readily available”. A lack of good information undermines public discussion about a significant policy change that raises many difficult questions.

Often we want the best outcome for individual cases. But if that outcome potentially applies to tens of thousands of people and runs counter to other public policy goals – like reining in government expenditure – then tough conversations are needed.

Second-best policies are often the compromise outcome when the hopes and dreams of individuals butt up against questions of public interest. But in our view, renewable temporary visas do not sit well with Australia’s aspirations to be a citizenship-centred, multicultural democracy because they risk creating a growing cohort of people who are permanently excluded from social support and political participation.

We recognise that migrant families want to bring their parents to Australia long term and it is hard to say “no” to this. But adding another category to Australia’s suite of temporary visas is not good policy. A growing population of elderly, non-English speaking migrants stuck on temporary visas is not a positive development in Australia’s migration story and should be opposed. Better approaches are possible. 

Dr Anna Boucher is a senior lecturer in Public Policy and Political Science at the University of Sydney, Peter Mares is the author of Not Quite Australian: how temporary migration is changing the nation, and Henry Sherrell is a research officer at ANU.  This article originally appeared in The Guardian.