The Albanese government’s first federal budget committed new funds to speed up visa processing, support people fleeing the war in Ukraine, improve English language programs, expand Pacific labour schemes, and review of Australia’s multicultural policy settings.
The new government noted its ongoing commitment to offshore processing, which will cost more than $632 million this financial year. Money was also budgeted to establish a network of Australian Border Force officers across the Pacific.
The Labor government campaigned on a plan to progressively increase the refugee intake and to provide permanency for refugees holding temporary protection visas; neither was accounted for in the October budget papers.
This budget was an update to the budget announced in March, reflecting the change in government in May. It served to embed some key Labor election promises in the nation’s balance sheet and to cut previously allocated spending now deemed wasteful. The next annual budget will be handed down in May 2023.
The Treasurer cautioned that spending decisions were being made ‘in the face of rising global economic uncertainty, high inflation and energy costs, and frequent natural disasters which continue to have devastating impacts on many communities.’
The budget showed no change to the humanitarian visa program, which will remain at 13,750 places in 2022/23, with additional places for Afghan refugees (16,500 over four years). Additional places for community sponsorship also were not included in this budget.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) expressed disappointment at the Government’s inaction on expanding the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
Refugee places lost while Australia’s borders were closed to contain COVID-19, when refugee resettlement in Australia reached a 45-year low, had never been restored, RCOA noted, adding: ‘We are disappointed that no places were rolled over from previous years and no additional places announced.’
This budget sees the program remain at the level set up by the Morrison Government – 13,750 places in the general program and 4,125 additional places for refugees from Afghanistan. The number of parent visas available will nearly double.
A review of Australia’s multicultural policy settings, aimed at strengthening social cohesion, will be funded with $1 million over two years (p 31).
Offshore processing and detention
The budget showed a significant increase in spending this financial year on offshore processing, bringing the $482 million allocated in March to $632.5 million in this budget. As noted in previous Kaldor Centre budget analyses, each year the actual expenditure on offshore processing proves to be far higher than the cost originally budgeted.
This budget forecasts (p 200) these immigration expenses ‘to decrease by 24.8 per cent in real terms from 2022–23 to 2025–26, primarily reflecting additional expenditure to support a higher detainee population in onshore detention in 2022–23 and 2023–24 and in offshore detention in 2022–23. The detainee population in both onshore and offshore detention is expected to decrease over the period to 2025–26.’
RCOA tallied $9.547 billion spent since Australia’s current version of offshore processing began in 2013-14, with CEO Paul Power saying, ‘We are appalled to see yet again that the funds allocated to positive changes in immigration and refugee programs are overshadowed by the increased allocation to the Australian Government’s offshore processing policy.’
Establishing a Border Force network in the Pacific will cost $22.3 million.
The Asylum Seekers Resource Centre (ASRC) called offshore processing a ‘moral and financial black hole’, adding that ‘Onshore detention is no better, with a staggering $1.3 billion being spent in 2022-23 and over 1 billion every year for the next four years. This exceeds spending by the Morrison Government over the same time period when compared to the previous budget.’
Visas and support
In funding previously flagged as addressing the skills shortage, the government is putting $42.2 million (p. 82) toward faster visa processing and resolving the visa backlog.
New funding of $18.4 million over four years will support additional three-year Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visas for Ukrainians (p 85), who can work, study, and access Medicare. The funding would also enable Ukrainians in Australia on bridging visas to access Medicare.
As promised before the election, $20 million over four years (p 149) will go to improving the Adult Migrant English Program (AMES), providing more flexible delivery options for people with caring responsibilities and other barriers to formal classroom learning, and adding case management support for students. RCOA called this a vital step in an important program.
A pilot program to assist temporary visa holders who experience domestic abuse (p 186) will go ahead with $12.6 million over two years.
RCOA welcomed the funding for visa processing in particular. ‘People seeking safety in Australia have been waiting for an average of two years for an Onshore Protection visa and even longer, in many cases, for refugee resettlement from another country,’ CEO Paul Power said.
‘Ensuring that timely and considered decisions are made on protection applications, offshore resettlement and family reunion visas is fundamental to an effective and humane Refugee and Humanitarian Program,” Mr Power said.
As announced earlier, a new Pacific Engagement Visa (p 150) will boost permanent migration from the Pacific to Australia. This visa program, recommended in the Kaldor Centre Policy Brief ‘Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Action’, will offer permanent residency to 3,000 people from Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste each year. It has been allocated $175.1 million over for years from 2022–23 (and $80.3 million per year ongoing from 2026–27).
The government will scale up the aged-care training pathway for Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme participants, adding 500 places in 2022–23. The PALM scheme will be expanded (p 111), with $67.5 million in funding over four years from 2022–23 (and $12.4 million per year ongoing from 2025–26).
Australia has recently announced the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership to support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste, which was allocated $50 million in the budget.
Released as Australians were in the midst of more floods and evacuations, the budget contained significant new spending on domestic disaster preparedness, recovery, risk reduction and resilience programs. It also included the first statement on the fiscal impacts of climate change (p 103) as well as funded climate action initiatives.
On the day the budget was released, independent MPs Allegra Spender, Andrew Wilkie, Kate Chaney and Zoe Daniel called for urgent action on Labor’s election promise to provide permanent protection for refugees and people seeking asylum who are currently subjected to ‘cruel’ temporary visas.
Spender said ‘people cannot afford to wait any longer. Labor needs provide a clear timeline for permanent protection now.’
Chaney said this would also ‘unlock the potential of highly skilled refugees to help fill Australia’s skills shortages’.
Meanwhile, RCOA said after the budget announcements that it would also lobby for action to restore a basic financial safety net for people seeking asylum: ‘Communities across Australia are witnessing the impacts of destitution and homelessness among bridging visa holders as a direct result of changes since 2017 to eligibility for Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program support.’
ASRC noted the lack of action on access to social support, on the refugee intake, on permanency for refugees holding temporary protection visas, on abolishing the ‘Fast Track’ system and on reforming the Administrative Appeals Tribunal backlog.
ASRC chief executive Kon Karapanagiotidis said: ‘It’s time to right the wrongs of the past decade, not continue the status quo of unfairness by denying refugees and people seeking asylum access to mainstream social support and a safety net.'