Dr Susan Love, Social Policy

Key issue

Following the removal of international travel restrictions implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, migration levels may be expected to return to pre-pandemic settings. Over the long term, permanent and temporary migration programs have been directed at promoting economic growth while contributing to social outcomes. Recent measures were introduced to support pandemic recovery. Further changes to the programs, including new visas, could lead in new policy directions.

Migration Program planning levels

The number of permanent visas allocated each year is announced in the Budget, with the latest program year Migration Program planning levels available on the Department of Home Affairs website. The Migration Program is set at 160,000 places for 2022–23, down from the historic high of 190,000 in the mid-2010s (see Figure 1).

From the time of the 2018 Budget, the Coalition Government began describing the planning level as a ‘ceiling’ not to be exceeded, whereas previously it had been treated as a target, with the aim of granting as close to that number of visas as possible.

The permanent Migration Program consists of 2 main streams, Skill and Family, with many different categories and subclasses of visas within these. In recent decades, the program has been balanced at about two-thirds Skill stream places to one-third Family. These proportions changed during the years of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The trends are presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1          Migration Program outcomes 2003–04 to 2022–23

graph - showing Migration Program outcomes 2003–04 to 2022–23

(a) Planned; does not account for 10,000 places re-assigned from Partner visas to the Skill stream for the 2021–22 year announced in the 2022–23 Budget.
(b) Total includes a small number of Special Eligibility stream visas.
(c) Includes Child stream visas.

Source: Department of Home Affairs, Australian Migration Statistics, 2020–21,; Migration Program planning levels, Department of Home Affairs website.

In 2019–20, the ceiling of 160,000 places was not reached, due to border and travel restrictions in the final part of the program year (from March 2020) and the impacts of the pandemic on visa processing capacity.

In 2020–21 and 2021–22, the balance of Skill and Family places was adjusted to about half-half (approximately 80,000 each). The additional places in the Family stream were assigned to Partner visas, which had a backlog of applications. The focus on Partner visas also facilitated the granting of more visas to people already in Australia, enabling the overall Migration Program level for 2020–21 to be reached despite border closures. In the 2022–23 Budget, the Coalition Government stated that the number of on-hand Partner visa applications had fallen and that 10,000 places from the 2021–22 allocation would be moved to the Skill stream (p. 11). (For further details, see the Immigration article in the Library’s Budget review 2022–23.)

The broad composition of the Skill and Family streams for 2022–23 sees a return to allocations similar to pre-pandemic levels. Partner visa places account for 40,500 out of the 50,000 total for the Family stream. The Skill stream is allocated 109,900 places.

The 2022–23 Budget also states that Partner visas will now be granted on ‘a demand driven basis’, similar to the Child stream (p. 12). This means that places within the Migration Program are provided as estimates, but they are not subject to an annual ceiling or cap (see the Budget review Immigration article for discussion).

In 2020–21 and 2021–22, a large proportion of places in the Skill stream- over one-third- were allocated to the Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) and Global Talent visa categories, the intention being to promote economic growth during the pandemic (pp. 93–94). The 2022–23 program returns to more balanced allocations across the Skill categories, while retaining relatively high levels for the BIIP and the Global Talent visa.

The Coalition Government introduced the Global Talent Visa Program in November 2019, offering a streamlined process to a permanent visa to attract highly-skilled, high-earning individuals in key industry sectors. The program is accompanied by a promotional campaign aimed at prospective applicants. In 2021, the Government introduced changes to the BIIP, streamlining eligibility and tightening investment requirements intended to maximise economic contribution of the program.

The business sector generally supports these programs (see for example Chapter 4 of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s Interim report of the inquiry into Australia’s skilled migration program). However, other stakeholders contend that they do not bring sufficient economic benefits especially compared with other skilled categories, or that they may not demonstrate adequate transparency and integrity.

The Albanese Government has committed to create a new Pacific Engagement visa, similar to New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category. This would be a substantial shift in visa policy and relations with the Pacific, allowing people from eligible countries to apply for a permanent visa if they have a job offer, without necessarily meeting the full skills requirements of the Migration Program Skill stream visas. A quota of 3,000 places is planned. Further visa measures for the Pacific are discussed below.

Temporary visas

There are no caps on the numbers of temporary visas granted- most categories are ‘demand-driven’. (There are exceptions, for example, the Working Holiday Maker Program has annual caps for some countries under respective bilateral arrangements.)

The bulk of temporary visas granted are for short term visitors (nearly two-thirds in 2018–19). Visitor visa holders are not allowed to work. Most other temporary visas allow work rights, but generally come with conditions linked to the purpose of the visa, and do not allow access to most social security payments. Temporary visas limit the time a holder may stay in Australia. If the specified time or purpose has concluded, the holder must apply for and be granted another visa, or leave Australia.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were over 2 million temporary visa holders in Australia. This figure varies seasonally. For example there are many more people on Visitor visas in Australia over summer than at other times.

The number of temporary visa holders in Australia fell substantially during pandemic related travel and entry restrictions. Very few temporary visa holders were permitted to travel to Australia, and those who were in Australia but could not continue to meet the conditions of their visa or support themselves, were encouraged to return to their home countries.

At 31 December 2019, there were over 2.4 million temporary visa holders in Australia. One year later, this figure was 1.8 million, and at 31 December 2021 this had fallen to 1.6 million, mostly due to the small numbers of Visitor visas. With the borders reopening in early 2022, the numbers have started rising, attaining 1.8 million at 31 March.

Figure 2 shows the trends in stocks of temporary visa holders in Australia for different visa categories, comparing the numbers at 31 March 2022 with the same point in time in previous years.

Figure 2          Temporary visa holders in Australia (selected categories), snapshots at 31 March, 2013–2022

graph - showing Temporary visa holders in Australia (selected categories), snapshots at 31 March, 2013–2022

Source: Department of Home Affairs, Temporary visa holders in Australia,

At March 2022, the number of Visitor visa holders was showing an uptick, but recovery looks to be slower for other categories such as Students, Working Holiday Makers and Temporary Skilled workers. (The dataset shows that numbers in the latter categories are still down compared with March 2021, but have increased from low points in September and December 2021.)

COVID-19 measures and pandemic recovery

During the period of closed borders (March 2020 to February 2022), the Morrison Government set visa processing and entry priorities to focus on visas for people with skills in key areas of shortage created by the pandemic, that supported pandemic recovery, or could drive investment and employment.

Factors such as internal travel restrictions and loss of employment made it difficult for many temporary visa holders in Australia to maintain their visa eligibility or to apply for another visa. The Government introduced measures during the pandemic to grant limited flexibility to temporary visa holders and applicants, particularly if a person was able to work in a critical area of pandemic response and recovery.

Measures included: a Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List to prioritise eligible temporary and permanent visa applications to fill critical skills gaps; creating a ‘pandemic event’ visa through the Temporary Activity (subclass 408) visa to allow temporary visa holders to stay in Australia if they could continue to work; and relaxing certain work restrictions for working holiday makers and international students. More details are available in the Department of Home Affairs report’ The administration of the immigration and citizenship programs (9th edition, pp. 4–6).

A COVID-19 concession period commenced from 1 February 2020 and does not yet have an end date. This allows for temporary concessional visa arrangements such as waiving certain visa fees and extending timeframes permitting temporary or provisional visa holders to meet criteria for certain permanent visas. With the borders reopening to fully vaccinated travellers from 21 February 2022, it is likely these arrangements will be phased out as the pandemic recovery continues and normal visa processing and travel resumes. However, even as pandemic restrictions eased, the Morrison Government continued to adjust visa settings, including for the ‘pandemic event’ visa, to encourage economic recovery.

Business stakeholders have argued that the permanent Migration Program planning levels should be increased at least in the next few years to stimulate economic recovery, although as noted above, the current Budget maintains the planning level at 160,000 places. Many economists also recommend a higher migration level, while other analysts argue that the settings and composition of the program, such as better focusing the Skill stream to attract younger, higher-earning migrants, or improving skills matching, are more important than the specific numbers.

The permanent Migration Program does not aim to fill lower-skilled jobs, and shortages in these areas have been exacerbated by the fall in temporary visa holders during the pandemic. Student visa holders and Working Holiday Makers often work in sectors such as hospitality, retail and agriculture, and employers may not be able to rely on filling vacancies with temporary visa holders if numbers are slow to recover. Drawing on these categories of temporary visa holders- where the primary purpose of the visa is not employment- also raises concerns around the policy intent of these visas and of migrant worker exploitation.

To assist with labour shortages in the agricultural sector during the pandemic, the Government prioritised entry of workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), which allows approved employers to recruit workers from participating Pacific Island countries. In April 2022, the SWP and the Pacific Labour Scheme were merged to form the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

While not specifically a COVID-19 measure, the Coalition Government also introduced a new Australian Agriculture visa program. The ‘Ag visa’ was negotiated between the Liberal and National parties, aiming to compensate for the anticipated loss of UK backpacker workers from the sector as a result of the Australia- UK Free Trade Agreement (2021) (which is not yet in force in Australia). The agreement includes an exemption for UK working holiday makers from having to undertake a period of specified agricultural work to qualify for a second-year or third-year visa. Only Vietnam has so far signed a memorandum of understanding for the Ag visa.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) indicated in its pre-election policy statements that it would wind back the Ag visa and merge it into the PALM scheme, honouring the arrangement with Vietnam but otherwise continuing to limit eligibility to Pacific Island countries and Timor Leste.

Visa transitioning and pathways to permanent residence

Migration Program planning levels are only one factor in how many people migrate to Australia each year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics measures net overseas migration (NOM). NOM is the difference between people arriving in Australia and people departing from Australia. Migrant arrivals to Australia are counted in NOM if they are in Australia for a total of 12 months or more during a 16-month period. Therefore, this counts people who arrive on a permanent visa, but also those who arrive on a temporary visa and stay for a year or more, for example to study or work.

In 2018–19, prior to the pandemic, NOM was 241,300. In 2020–21, it was -88,800, that is, more people left Australia than arrived. The 2022–23 Budget (p. 114) projects that NOM will return to near pre-pandemic levels (around 235,000) in 2024–25. For further information, see the Budget review Immigration article and the article ‘Australia’s population: recent changes’ in this Briefing book.

Usually, around half of permanent visas are granted to people already in Australia on temporary visas. This proportion increased during the pandemic to 67.5% in 2020–21 (p. 3). Given the permanent Migration Program levels of 160,000 per year and that many of these visas will be granted to people already in Australia, it is evident that temporary migration is projected to make up a significant proportion of NOM.

While most temporary visa holders will leave Australia at some point, others may transition through several temporary visas before obtaining a permanent visa, or they may remain in Australia on temporary visas without ever obtaining a permanent visa. In most cases, a temporary visa holder must meet the criteria for a permanent visa in the same way as any other applicant. However, some temporary visas place limits on applying for a subsequent visa.

For example, the short-term stream of the Temporary Skill Shortage visa allows only one subsequent application for another TSS visa. The TSS (subclass 482) visa replaced the subclass 457 visa in March 2018. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s report on Australia's skilled migration program recommended changing the short-term TSS to allow a pathway to permanent residence, stating that ‘All employer nominated visas should provide the option of a pathway to permanency’ provided that requirements, such as skills, age and English language levels, are met (p. 42). Stakeholders, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also recommended implementing a pathway for all temporary skilled migrants. The ALP has indicated it would support this (see for example pages 103–108 of the committee’s report).

New Zealand citizens living in Australia are a unique case, as the Special Category (subclass 444) visa allows them to stay and work indefinitely despite it being a temporary visa (see Figure 2). If they wish to become permanent residents (and eventually Australian citizens), most must apply for a permanent visa in the Migration Program. The New Zealand stream of the Skilled Independent (subclass 189) visa was introduced in 2016 to facilitate the pathway to permanent residence for certain subclass 444 holders, although applicants need to meet requirements including an income threshold. There are calls to broaden the eligibility for this pathway, enabling more New Zealanders to become permanent residents. Observers note this may reduce vulnerabilities for some of those living in Australia and enable them to make a greater contribution to the economy and society, but may come at higher social security costs.

Further reading

Department of Home Affairs, The Administration of the Immigration and Citizenship Programs, 9th edition, (Canberra: Department of Home Affairs, 2022).

Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Final Report of the Inquiry into Australia’s Skilled Migration Program, (Canberra: Australian Parliament, 2021).

Susan Love, Where to Find Immigration Data: a Quick Guide, Research paper series, 2021–22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2022).

Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration, Select Committee on Temporary Migration, final report, (Canberra: The Senate, 2021).

Harriet Spinks, Australia’s Permanent Migration Program: a Quick Guide, Research paper series, 2021–22, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2021).


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