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Issue #1685      May 20, 2015

Citizenship for sale

Earlier this year, in one of its most disturbing initiatives the Abbott government commissioned a Productivity Commission report into the feasibility of selling citizenship rights to prospective immigrants. An issues paper which discusses various options for implementing the scheme has just been released, and the final report, entitled Migrant Intake Into Australia will be issued in March 2016.

Under the current scheme a migration visa is usually assessed according to the skill of the applicants in given areas of work, or their family connections, or whether they meet other criteria. However, under the new scheme, entry would largely be determined by the applicant’s ability to pay the fee.

Migration visa applicants are currently charged an administration fee that’s not set on a cost recovery basis, The current scheme brings in approximately $1.7 billion in fees and fines, but the Commission claims the proposed scheme would bring in tens of billions of dollars which would help the government rein in the budget deficit, and enable it to slash the numbers of Immigration Department staff.

Options considered in the paper include setting a fixed price and letting demand determine the size of the intake, capping the size of the intake and letting demand set the price, auctioning off a fixed number of applications by way of a tender process, or conducting an admission lottery, as happens in the US.

The paper also canvasses the possibility of running a HECS-style loans program to assist migrants from developing countries gain entry, and giving applicants who could not afford the fee the option of foregoing their right to social services, including Medicare, to reduce the price.

The current program provides 13,750 places on a humanitarian basis. Refugees would not have to pay the immigration fee, but because the scheme would be primarily based on the wealth of the applicant it would inevitably reduce the number of immigrants accepted from less developed nations.

Under the proposal, businesses would also be entitled to pay the applicant’s entry fee. That opens up the possibility of corporations bringing in contracted, low-wage, non-union labour from overseas, which would particularly suit mining companies that conduct operations in remote areas.

Instant opposition

Unions and some employer groups, who support selection on the basis of skills or qualifications in a number of specified areas of work, oppose the Commission’s proposal.

Ged Kerney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, commented: “We are concerned the Productivity Commission’s inquiry is focused on allowing only those rich enough to migrate, regardless of fulfilling the current requirements, including skills shortages”.

The current family reunion program accounts for approximately one third of the current migrant intake of 190,000 places. The proportion has shrunk since the Howard years, and the Commission’s proposal is opposed by migrant organisations, who do not wish migrant citizens to lose the right to reunite with close family members.

That has already happened to asylum seekers who accept temporary protection visas, which allow visa holders to work but don’t grant them the right to have family members join them.

The commissioning of the report was ostensibly part of a deal to gain the support of Senator David Leonhjem for the introduction of the temporary protection visa scheme.

The Senator nominated $50,000 as appropriate for the entry fee, and commented enthusiastically: “This would make a substantial financial contribution to the Australian budget and I hope that would lead to lower taxes”.

In reply to criticism of the proposal, the government claims that “There are no plans to make significant changes to the migration program”. But that’s not the same as saying there won’t be, and Abbott himself has left the door open, simply describing implementation of a paid entry scheme as “unlikely”.

The government appears non-committal at this stage, but that’s what it did with Labor’s idea of dumping asylum seekers in Manus Island, a scheme which it later adopted, expanded and made more vindictive.

The issues paper appears to have been released with a view to the government assessing public reaction prior to release of the report, prior to implementing a paid entry scheme next year.

The government won’t increase taxes for rich individuals and corporations that pay little or no tax in Australia, so the idea of charging for citizenship as a means of reducing the budget deficit is undoubtedly irresistible for the Abbott government.

How low can you go?

Britain’s immigration scheme allows rich applicants to get early treatment of their applications provided they make investments. The Commission is undoubtedly considering including this policy, but it has received much criticism because some wealthy applicants have simply donated to businesses they have already set up in Britain.

In Australia the unions and migrant community are absolutely right to object to the Commission’s proposal, which poses a major threat to working wages and conditions, and to the fundamental right to family unity. But those aren’t the only reasons.

The government has already dumped an internationally-recognised fundamental human right concerning citizenship, by declaring that children of asylum seekers do not have the right to be citizens even if they were born on Australian territory. The issues paper proposal would also have the effect of discriminating against people from certain nations, just as the white Australia policy did.

Moreover, the proposed slashing of immigration staff numbers implies an effective abandonment of “border protection” policies in the cases of those wealthy enough to buy their way in. Immigration Department staff are already targeted for cuts in this week’s budget, and the Commission has admitted that a price-based system might lead to “some loss of control” over the immigration intake.

The proposal is one of the most degrading ideas of Australia’s conservative coalition, whose political values are centred on money, property and markets.

The Australian national anthem extols our good fortune, and invites others to “join us now” and “advance Australia fair”. But by buying their way in? Is citizenship, then, just a commodity that can be bought and sold?

The proposal to charge prospective migrants a market-based fee represents the ultimate commercialisation of Australia’s national life and character, and should be rejected outright.

Next article – Budget 2015-16 – Assault on Australia’s battlers

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