Australia’s migration system requires stronger institutions

People boarding a plane

The government’s Migration Strategy, released last December, makes positive steps towards fixing a broken migration system.

But a repair of this scale needs a stronger plan for coordination across the whole of government, and more investment in understanding how migration really works.

The solution is to reinstate a standalone immigration department led by a senior Cabinet minister and establish a national migration institute.

Steps in the right direction:

The Migration Strategy tackles some key faults arising since the last migration system review three decades ago.

It promises to reduce dependence on international students, introduce objective assessments of demand for migrant workers, and update the aging points system.

It aims to address regional Australia’s needs, strengthen Indo-Pacific ties, boost compliance, reduce worker exploitation, and factor in long-term horizons when planning migration levels.

It also hopes to simplify overly complex migration settings and create clear pathways through the maze of temporary visas, though it’s not quite clear how.

These upgrades should normalise net migration around pre-pandemic levels, ending the recent surge that has compensated for drastic migration shortfalls during COVID-19.

The elephant in the room:

These are positive steps, but bigger migration management challenges also need tackling.

One is poor coordination among the many government agencies that regulate different aspects of migration. This has emerged since the previous Government dismantled Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship in 2013.

The Department of Home Affairs now controls permanent and humanitarian migration and most temporary visas, plus citizenship and multicultural affairs. But subordinating these programs to security and policing is hampering Australia’s ability to compete for highly skilled migrants with countries like Canada.

Moreover, Home Affairs can’t maintain a system-level view because different agencies control other aspects of migration. For example, it has no say in Treasury’s all-important net migration forecasts. The Pacific Labour Mobility is managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR). And state and territory governments have their own migration governance structures, with dedicated visa channels and extensive settlement services.

With so many agencies managing different aspects of migration, the system is like the proverbial blindfolded men studying an elephant. One feels the trunk, thinking it’s a snake. Another feels the ear, deciding it’s a fan. A third believes the leg is a tree, and so on. If these agencies cooperated, they would see migration is the elephant in the room. It touches core business for almost every government agency but is central to none.

To make matters worse, the Immigration Minister is not a member of Cabinet, making it hard for them to coordinate all the other Cabinet ministers involved. Despite holding one of the most politically consequential portfolios in all of government, the Immigration Minister does not even get a seat at the top table.

To use an analogy, the Net Overseas Migration rate has far wider significance for Australian society than the Official Cash Rate – but far less effort goes into regulating it.

Migration needs a single, authoritative focal point within government. Australia should re-establish a standalone Immigration Department with a Cabinet-level Minister to maintain regulatory frameworks, allocate resources, and ensure parliamentary oversight.

How migration really works:

The other key challenge for migration management is poor public understanding of migration itself.

Media coverage is dominated by sensationalists lacking expertise, who wrongly attribute every problem to migrants. One week inflation is caused by too few migrants driving up wages. The next, inflation is caused by too many migrants driving up rents. Somehow, miraculously, migrants can both steal your job while bludging off the dole at the same time.

It’s mystifying how migrants can simultaneously occupy these opposite states of being in the public mind. Forget Schrödinger’s Cat. Quantum physicists should be studying Schrödinger’s Immigrant.

Jests aside, these media characterisations don’t make sense and aren’t based on facts. But such misinformation is widespread. It is often weaponised on social media by extremists seeking to undermine Australia’s social cohesion and democratic decision-making.

The tone of migration debate has deteriorated partly due to declining migration research and training capacity. We aren’t teaching enough people how migration really works.

Australia aspires to compete in the migration field with countries like Canada. But we have not kept pace with their significant investments in high-quality migration research and education institutes.

Australia has nothing comparable to the Canadian Government’s recent investment of A$111 million in the ‘Bridging Divides’ program, dedicated to understanding the challenges of migrant integration in the mid-21st century.

To lead the world in understanding and managing migration, Australia should match Canada’s efforts and establish a National Migration Institute, to conduct research, educate experts, and properly inform the public.

It’s remarkable that such an institute does not exist, because few issues are closer to Australia’s national identity, and its place in the world, than the issue of human migration. The majority of Australians are either born overseas or have a parent born overseas.

Building a resilient migration system

Maintaining the migration system requires more than brief consultations every three decades.

It requires independent institutions to generate reliable knowledge about the issue, and strong statutory authorities to coordinate government action. Neither of these currently exist.

Thankfully, the Government is promising many long overdue changes to migration policy. But fixing the migration system will require a step change in the level of priority given to understanding and managing the issue.

It will require a standalone immigration department led by a senior Cabinet minister to restore whole-of-government coordination, and something like a National Migration Institute to improve public understanding of how migration really works.

This policy brief is written by Professor Alan Gamlen from the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) for the ANU Policy Brief