Pandemic to endemic: a focus on Australia’s properity, security and unity
Faced with the global pandemic, on 20 March 2020 the Australian government closed Australia’s borders to focus on public health and safeguarding the security of the nation.
Since then, Australia has grappled with the greatest economic shock since World War II: a covid19-induced recession and the greatest limitation on basic human rights that we have ever known as a nation.
Australia re-opened its borders to prescribed visa holders on 15 December 2021, with a 4.5 per cent unemployment rate, critical labour force shortages and Mid Year Economic & Fiscal Outlook, which highlighted Australia’s resilience in the face of significant economic challenges. The budget aggregates and major economic parameters forecast a government deficit for 2021–2022 of $99.2 billion, and net debt estimated at A$729 billion.
Australia’s high vaccination rates and restrictions have helped keep infection and deaths relatively low: as at mid December 2021 Australia had had a total of 238,969 covid-19 cases with 2,126 deaths, while globally there were 273,110,082 cases and over 5.35 million deaths.
The pandemic has tested Australia’s Constitution and Federation. Despite the formation of the National Cabinet, the aim of which was to secure a coordinated approach to the pandemic across states and territories, each had their own approach. Victoria’s capital Melbourne earned the title of the city that spent more days in lockdown than any other world city (some 265 days), Western Australia still has its borders shut at the end of 2021, and Tasmania reopened its borders on 15 December 2021 after some 22 months.
The closure of state and territory borders and extended lockdowns severely disrupted everyday life for some 13 million Australians, with people losing their jobs, families being separated, businesses and schools shutting down and education and the freedom of movement suspended.
As a consequence of the closure of Australia’s international and state and territory borders, international flight restrictions, caps on arrivals and 14 days mandatory quarantine: as at October 2021, there were still around 47,000 Australian citizens stranded offshore.
Despite a 93 per cent drop in arrivals relative to pre-pandemic numbers, in 2020/2021 migration agents in Australia generated revenue of A$888.1 million compared with A$1 billion in 2019/2020. Because of the drop in applications, the Department of Home Affairs raised revenue of A$1.64 billion from Visa fees, fines and levies as compared with A$2.196 billion in 2020.
With the reopening of the border on 15 December 2021, the Department is grappling with the backlog of applications lodged while the border was closed, in addition to the growing number of applications that continue to be lodged.
The Department’s role and function as the central coordination, strategy and policy leadership agency includes managing cyber security, infrastructure resilience and security, immigration, border security and management, law enforcement and counter-terrorism, emergency management, the protection of Australia’s sovereignty, citizenship and social cohesion.
The Australian Border Force, its independent operational enforcement arm, works domestically and internationally to manage the movement of goods and people across the borders while identifying, mitigating and responding to threats before they reach Australia’s borders.
Australia’s highly codified, rule-based, complex and ever-changing immigration laws and policies reflect the government’s economic and social policies for Australia. They underpin Australia’s focus on economic prosperity and population growth while creating a secure and united Australia.
With the vaccination rate of more than 90 per cent – one of the highest in the world – and a strong economic recovery predicted, Australia is well placed to deal with the Omicron variant as we reopen our borders.
The closure of Australia’s borders has had a unprecedented  impact on all visa processing and entry to the country. Australian citizens required a travel exemption in order to depart and return to Australia, and Contributary Parent visa applications are now taking six years to process.
Although the border has been ‘reopened’ as of mid-December 2021, the backlog of visa applications and processing is significant. Although around 90,000 parent exemptions were recently granted, allowing parents to visit their children, a lack of flight capacity will continue to effect the ability of visa holders to enter the country.
The emergence of Omnicron has resulted in fresh uncertainty, and although the federal government’s current position is that ‘Australia is open,’ the Department of Home Affairs will continue to adapt to the changing environment along with medical advice.
There are 160,000 overall places planned for in the current Migration Program planning levelsof which 79,600 places are in the Skill category, 77,300 places in the Family category and 3,000 places for Child visas. 
The Australian government is currently undertaking planning for the 2020–2023 Permanent Migration Program. Its focus is on the size and cost effectiveness of the Program to best support Australia’s recovery from covid-19 and long-term economic, social cohesion and demographic needs.
The recent changes include a phased approach to reopening the border to vaccinated travellers. As of 15 December 2021, fully vaccinated visa holders are able to travel to Australia without exemption. This includes international students, skilled migrants, refugee/humanitarian, and temporary and provisional family visa holders.
International safe travel zones have been introduced for New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
With international education previously a A$37.4 billion industry, state and territory governments are leading the return of international students to their jurisdictions within their health and quarantining capacities.
The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021–2023 summarises changes to visa settings to allow for “ongoing flexibility in Australia’s migration policies” to enhance Australia’s global competitiveness and to “support diversification and growth and align with Australia’s skills needs”.
With some 145,000 student visa holders currently offshore, various measures are being put into place to allow those who lost time due to the pandemic travel restrictions to reapply for a visa and to recognise time spent offshore studying online to count towards qualifying for a subclass 485 Temporary Graduate visa.
The Australian Agriculture visa was introduced on 30 September 2021 as a new temporary employer-sponsored visa within the subclass 403 Temporary Work (International Relations) visa to address critical labour force shortages in primary industries including horiticulture, meat processing, diary, fisheries and forestry.
It will come into effect after agreement on the program design with industry and bilateral negotiations with partner countries has been completed.
The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme aims to provide greater flexibility for employers and Pacific workers.
The Distinguished Talent and Global Talent focuses on those who have an internationally recognised record of exceptional and outstanding achievement in a target area, are nominated by a someone who can confirm that the individual has such achievement, are currently prominent in the target area, would be an asset to Australia, and would have no difficulty in obtaining employment or in becoming established independently in the target area.
The program ceiling is 15,000 for the 2020–2021 financial year and the demand is well above the number of available places.
From 1 July 2021 the BIIP requirements focus on highly successful business persons and high value investors, and the Complying Investment Framework has been enhanced and extended to apply to the Investor and the Significant Investor visa streams.
From 13 November 2021, BIIP documents can be uploaded to ImmiAccount, the Department of Home Affairs’ online lodgement system.
Applicants for either the Investor or Significant Investor visa stream can provide fund manager and investments information in the online lodgement form, which allows for streamlined processing.
The Minister of Immigration reduced the number of Employer Nomination Scheme (subclass 186) and Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (subclass 187) visas that can be approved relative to the 2019 financial year by 26.7 per cent in 2020, and again by 26.7 per cent in 2021.
With the aim of protecting Australian jobs, it enhanced the genuine position requirement with labour market testing for both the Direct Entry and Temporary Residence Transition streams to assess whether there is a genuine need for an overseas workers. All applications must provide evidence that the Annual Market Salary Rate, or the terms and conditions of employment of the overseas worker, are no less favourable than those provided to Australian citizen/permanent resident employees at that workplace’s locality.
Processing times are impacted by policy, including Ministerial Directions No. 92 and 93, with certain skilled migration occupations processed ahead of others. This includes employer-sponsored visa applications for a nominated occupation in the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List or within a critical sector, applications lodged under the Global Talent Employer Sponsored Agreement, and Significant Investor visa applications.
Labour Market Testing requirements require evidence that the position cannot be filled from the Australian workforce at the time of the lodgement of the nomination application for the Temporary Skill Shortage (subclass 482) and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional Provisional (SESR) (subclass 494).
Covid-19 has affected both departmental and other services relating to the application process. This includes arranging and attending visa medical appointments with overseas panel doctors and with BUPA Medical Visa Services in Australia.
The availability of English language tests have also been impacted by covid-19 and has delayed applications for a student, skilled and some permanent visas, which require evidence that the English language requirements have been met.
Applications for skilled visas such as the Skilled Independent visa (subclass 189); state and territory nominated visas such as the Skilled Nominated visa (subclass 190); and BIIP visas such as the Significant Investor visa (subclass 188) can only be progressed if the expression of interest lodged by the candidate results in an issue of an automated SkillSelect invitation.
The Department of Home Affairs has extensive automated processes across the visa program. SkillSelect uses a ranking system of enabling those with the highest points score, followed by the earliest “date of effect” when the person reaches the points score for a relevant visa subclass, to be eligible for an invitation to apply.
There is no right to lodge an application under SkillSelect if the Department does not issue the invitation to apply.
The SkillSelect 29 October 2021 invitation round focused on various engineering and medical occupations. This is consistent with the Priority Skilled Migration Occupation List, which came into effect on 2 September 2020 and now includes 44 occupations in high demand, for example:
Regional Australia continues to struggle to meet its labour force needs, so from 1 November 2021, new regional concessions became available for the dairy, fishing, meat and pork industry labour agreements to support businesses in regional Australia.
The concessions relate to reducing the level of work experience, reducing the test score required to meet the English language requirement, and allowing additional flexibility around Labour Market Testing.
These concessions aim to allow businesses to now sponsor, for example, older applicants for certain visa subclasses who may have diverse work experience and/or are willing to migrate to regional areas.
Australia’s close relationship with New Zealand has resulted in a focus on reducing processing time frames for this program, while enabling applicants who do not hold a substantive visa at the time of the subclass 461 visa application to address Schedule 3 criteria. Schedule 3 criteria relates to unlawful non-Australian citizens and certain bridging visa holders seeking to apply for a visa in Australia.
Section 48 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) prohibits the lodgement of visa applications from within Australia for certain visa subclasses where the person has had a visa refused or cancelled and they do not hold a substantive visa.
As part of addressing labour force shortages in specified areas in Australia, from 13 November 2021 certain onshore applicants who are affected by the section 48 bar can apply for the following three skilled visas:
In March 2020, there were some 2.4 million temporary visa holders in Australia.
As at 31 October 2021 there were 1.6 million temporary visa holders in Australia, many looking for a means to secure ongoing stay.
The following is a breakdown of each visa category, with New Zealand citizens who are Special Category visa holders as the largest cohort:
Dynamic changes are a constant feature of Australia’s Migration Program and policies, particularly in the context of the rapidly-changing Australian border rules.
As Australia adjusts to the ‘new normal’, it is expected that there will be greater flexibility in Australia’s migration policies to enhance Australia’s competitive position overseas while meeting Australia’s trade, investment and national security priorities.
Increasingly, Australians are accepting that the pandemic is now endemic as the country now grapples with the Omicron variant.
Following the impact of harsh and extended state border closures, it will be interesting to see what lessons have been learned about coordination, strategy and policy leadership – particularly in relation to national security, immigration, border security and management, law enforcement, emergency management, the protection of Australia’s sovereignty, citizenship and social cohension.
In an increasingly complex and dynamic world, the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and the Migration Program will continue to position Australia for our future success with the focus on security, prosperity and social cohesion.
 
Visa category
31/10/2021
Bridging
338,674
Crew and Transit
10,720
Special Category
655,797
Student
308,812
Visitor
34,250
Working Holiday Maker
26,390
Other Temporary
3,722
Temporary Resident (Other Employment)
48,550
Temporary Resident (Skilled Employment)
94,713
Temporary Protection
18,691
Temporary Graduate
91,607
Grand Total
1,631,926

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