Appropriation Bill (No 1) 2021-2022 Consideration in Detail
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs) (16:50): During the past 18 months we've introduced greater flexibility into visa requirements and conditions to ensure temporary and provisional visa holders affected by the pandemic can continue to stay and work and to ensure businesses in critical sectors like health, aged care, disability services, child care, agriculture and food processing can access the skills they need. The government acted quickly so that those temporary visa holders could fill labour shortages and could have certainty about their stay here. We've not required anybody who has been a guest in Australia during this period to leave, and people continue to stay and work successfully in so many sectors and areas.
We've introduced concessions for international students and working holiday-makers so they can continue working in critical sectors, and we have expanded concessions to the tourism and hospitality sectors. We still have up to 30,000 backpackers in the working holiday-maker scheme here, and the government has ensured that they can continue to have their visas extended and their opportunities expanded so they are able to stay safely and continue to work and make choices about their stays. We have waived eligibility charges and we have introduced a 408 COVID event visa, which enables people to stay here for longer periods while we get through the COVID pandemic. The government has also introduced the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List. We will continue to update that list to take account of those critical skills that are a priority for processing during the pandemic.
I note members' comments about changes in priority processing times. Absolutely I want to thank all of the staff of the Department of Home Affairs who have been involved in processing visas—record numbers of visas and applications in many cases—as we see surges in demand because of COVID, and certainly for things like Australian citizenship. In fact, in the last year we had a record amount of citizenships processed, with over 200,000 Australian citizenships being granted. That's a record in Australian history and, of course, that's a significant achievement by the department and the government.
In terms of partner processing, I certainly would say to the member for Bruce that he's brought the passion to this debate, and he should apply that passion to the scrutiny of the detail that he brings in as well, and perhaps his passion to the facts about that detail, because facts without context and facts without relevant judgement and consideration can lead to some misnomers. His assumption that the delays we have in certain partner visa cohorts have a racial cause, of course, is incorrect. Race has nothing to do with it. We have a non-discriminatory migration program. Everybody here believes in that. His allegations that there is a racial consideration are completely false.
He also puts an equivalence on every country in the world, and he cites several countries and says, 'Why aren't all processing times equal?' The facts simply answer his questions in a straightforward fashion, because not every country in the world is equal in their ability to provide the relevant information on behalf of people to complete health and character checks to ensure that those visas can be processed. One of the countries he spoke about was Afghanistan. If he's comparing Afghanistan with the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada or other countries that is he cited, I think he will come to his own conclusion about why processing times are not the same in accessing information from government departments. His allegation that race is a factor in every one of those countries I think belies the fact that both the United Kingdom and the United States of America are multiracial countries. People come from all racial backgrounds in these countries. There is no discrimination on the basis of race. To suggest that everybody in the UK is white or that everybody in the US is white I think is highly offensive and inaccurate. I really don't understand the accusation. It's a low-brow accusation. It doesn't bear out the facts. A simple examination of what he is saying belies the complete untruth about the allegation he is making.
The fact is the government has put forward a record amount of partner visa allocations for this year. His question will be answered in coming weeks, when I make an announcement about the final outcome for the migration program, where we will, of course, do everything possible to meet the 160,000 level that the government and cabinet have set for this year. That will include a pretty good amount of partner visa processing, given the circumstances of COVID. Of course, there are delays. COVID has further delayed partner visa processing in some countries, and that's to be regretted. We'll work consistently with agencies everywhere to make sure that we can get that information and that people can meet their health and character checks. But many do not in different partnering visa processing, and that has to be taken into account as well.
I will say more in another contribution, but the government are working through this. We are processing visas well. We'll make an announcement about the final migration outcome in coming weeks.