Politicians love to talk about this ‘tough’ idea – but if anything, Australia is more liberal on immigration
The cut-through phrase ‘Australian style points-based system’ was in the news again this week after Home Secretary Priti Patel offered as it her main policy proposal for Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system.
The Australian-style system is an old idea, one that’s been reheated by everyone from New Labour ministers to Nigel Farage for more than a decade. It’s the one immigration idea that politicians love to talk about – but what does it really mean?
Politicians rarely give details on what, deep down, they are trying to achieve with immigration policy proposals – so it’s hard to say exactly what changes could be brought about. But we can look at Australia’s system and see just how it stacks up alongside the UK’s.
The outlines of the Australian approach are relatively simple. Would-be immigrants are awarded points against various criteria: for example, their age, English language skills, and education. Applicants can score extra points for being nominated by one of Australia’s state governments, or if they’ve studied in Australia. Only those who pass a threshold on the points test can be granted a visa to move to Australia.
For the most part, that system sounds like common sense. That’s why politicians talk about it: voters like the idea of testing language and qualifications. (Some may even know one of the tens of thousands of Brits who move to Australia each year, and go through the process themselves.)
What happens in the UK
The reality, however, is that Britain already applies these ‘common-sense’ tests. Applicants for a work visa need to prove they speak English, have a job offer in a skilled occupation and will earn more than a specified minimum salary.
Those rules don’t apply to EU citizens. They, like British people moving elsewhere in the EU, can usually move to the UK without such tests. Ending free movement and imposing these criteria on Europeans would be a big change. But if that’s all Patel is suggesting, she’s not really promising to redesign Britain’s visa and immigration system in any serious way.
In fact, officially speaking, the UK already has a points-based system. Applicants for a work visa, for example, score 10 points for speaking adequate English, and 30 for having a job offer.
Though there are some similarities, in reality, Australia’s points-based system is more open to immigration than current British rules are. The reasons why show how misleading the Government’s rhetoric on this issue is.
In the UK system, applicants need to score all the points available in every category – language, job offer, salary, and so on – or they won’t be granted a visa.
Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia. Almost 30% of Australia’s population were born overseas.(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Openness to immigration
Australia’s system is significantly more flexible. Someone with less education can make up those missing points by, for example, having their application supported by a state government. Crucially, the Australian points test allows migrants to qualify for a work visa without a job offer, and find work once in Australia. That is not possible in Britain.
This is just one way that Australia’s immigration system is more open than the UK’s. Australia’s programme to settle refugees directly from conflict regions is, adjusted for population size, ten times bigger than Britain’s.
Australian citizens can bring a foreign spouse to the country no matter what their income, whereas British citizens face one of the highest minimum income thresholds in the world if they want to live with their partner.
The effect of these policies is that the net immigration rate is higher in Australia than it is in Britain. That’s made Australia one of the rich world’s most diverse countries, with nearly 30 per cent of its population born overseas compared to 14 per cent in the UK.
So although we can speculate about what Priti Patel – known for her hardline streak – really intends, the pledge itself could mean anything from major liberalisation to merely applying the existing system to Europeans.
But the gap between the two possibilities illustrates the real value to politicians of talking about ‘an Australian-style’ systems. It’s a vague promise, that lets them walk both sides of the street without engaging in any serious argument about the immigration Britain needs.
Fergus Peace was formerly an immigration policy researcher at Global Future and co-writes a weekly newsletter on migration issues. He tweets @FergusPeace.