Australia and New Zealand have tightened visa conditions for skilled migrants in a bid to woo nationalist-leaning voters, echoing the US’s “America First” policy, but critics have decried the move as mostly political posturing.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday abolished a temporary work visa popular with foreigners, replacing it with a new programme. New Zealand also tightened access to skilled work visas, taking a “Kiwis-first approach.”
The changes are likely to hurt small businesses and Australian tech start-ups, industry officials said, but both countries will continue to see a surge in foreigners.
Recent population growth in Australia has been driven by student visas, which offer a path for people to study, work and eventually become permanent residents.
In the six months to December, the country granted 156,453 student visas. This compares with just 12,866 of the so-called 457 skilled work visas approved in the year to September 2016.
More than 95,000 foreigners are now employed under the 457 visa, making up a mere 0.8% of Australia’s labour force.
“This is just a change of name, nothing else,” said Shamim Ahmed, a Sydney-based migration agent at AIC Education Services. “They cannot really abolish this visa because it is demanded by employers.”
The 457 visa has been axed with immediate effect, and replaced by two new visas with a shorter skills shortage list and a tougher English language requirement, Turnbull announced on Tuesday. Additional details are still awaited.
Turnbull, who broke the news on social media site Facebook, expects fewer entrants to Australia under the new scheme, he said in a radio interview on Wednesday.
“There will be a short-term skills visa for two years and it can only be renewed once. And then the person holding it has to go back to their home country,” Turnbull said, repeating the “Australian jobs for Australians” rhetoric 16 times.
Another four-year visa will have stricter eligibility criteria.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has labelled the announcement “cosmetic” and a “con job” that will make no real difference.
“That’s just shifting deck chairs on the proverbial sinking ship,” he added.
In neighbouring New Zealand, the policy changes are expected to have a limited impact on net arrivals.
Opposition members were quick to accuse the ruling National party of currying favour with voters in an election year, without making efforts to rein in immigration numbers and unemployment.
“National’s changes don’t address the huge numbers of people coming here to do low-level qualifications or low-skill work,” said Labour party leader Andrew Little.
A boom in new arrivals has helped the New Zealand economy achieve some of the strongest gross domestic product growth in the developed world.
But opposition parties and the central bank have called for a review of policies, citing low wage growth and soaring house prices spurred by the influx.