Immigration Reform: Inspired By Aussies?

Immigration reform: inspired by Aussies?

Report comparing two systems finds results Down Under

John Ivison
National Post
Published: Thursday, June 19, 2008

OTTAWA -The Harper government's controversial immigration proposals passed into law yesterday but the hard work aimed at reducing the backlog of 925,000 applications, and streamlining Canada's migration program, has just begun.

The next step is to drag the system into the 21st century by finding out exactly who has applied to come to Canada. Remarkably, the federal government has no idea what skills the people in line have to offer and only the faintest inkling what skills the country needs to satisfy current shortages.

To address these shortcomings, the government will now spend $100-million leafing through the dusty pile of applications on hand to code them according to occupation. In the meantime, Diane Finley, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, will visit the provinces and ask them about their job-vacancy situation.

The new legislation means bureaucrats do not need to process every new application that lands in their in-tray, which should mean that the backlog stops growing. Ms. Finley has talked of bringing in more applicants, faster, and the goal is to reduce the wait time to around a year from the current four years.

No one argues against the modernization of the immigration bureaucracy. But the main point of contention for many immigrant groups is fear the new policy will limit the number of family reunification cases, resulting in a significant shift in the type of newcomers to Canada.

There is no doubt these fears are justified — change is coming. Officials say privately that no decisions have been taken on how the system is to be re-structured, but there was much chatter within the government recently about a study by Australian immigration expert Lesleyanne Hawthorne, which compared the Australian and Canadian systems.

It seems the conclusion has already been reached that Canada's “human capital model” points system is out-dated and does not supply the type of immigrants the country needs. The current selection process awards points on the basis of skills,

age, education, language (although there is no need for competence to be tested), work experience and occupational demand.

However, even though the application process was tweaked by the Liberals in 2002, many Canadian officials interviewed for the Hawthorne study said the process admits applicants with limited English or French language skills, “general” rather than job specific skills and qualifications that are often not recognized. “Given that newly arrived migrants are more than twice as likely to possess degrees, it seems essential to redress this skills wastage,” Ms. Hawthorne concluded.

The Australians used a similar system until 1996 when, in Ms. Hawthorne's words, the new government of John Howard shifted policy “from altruism to pragmatism.” The Australians tailored their points system to give greater weighting to factors of skill, age and English language ability. Successful applicants must now pass an English language test, proving he or she has “partial command of the language.”

Additional points are awarded for those who are qualified to fill occupations in demand, for those whose degree-level qualifications relate to specific (rather than generic) professions, and for those with job offers.

The gains have been tangible. A decade ago, about 60% of applicants in both countries secured some form of work within six months of their arrival. In Canada that rate has stagnated. In Australia, the rate is now 83%, despite the two countries having near-identical economic cycles. Wage outcomes there have increased dramatically, while in Canada they have gone in the opposite direction (it now takes up to 30 years for a newcomer to reach parity with comparably qualified Canadians).

Small wonder the Conservatives are looking Down Under for inspiration. Officials remain tight-lipped on specific changes but a mandatory pre-migration English or French language test would seem to be in the offing, as well as a re-evaluation of the proportion of points awarded for pre-migration work experience and qualifications.

“It's not rocket science to know that if you match the people you are bringing in with the needs of the market, you will find that the outcomes are much better,” said one official.

As is so often the case in politics, the party traditionally associated with an issue is unable to institute reform. The Liberals tried to raise the number of points required for entry to 75 from 70 back in 2002 but were forced to retreat, under pressure from their immigrant constituency, eventually capitulating and reducing the number required to 67.

The Conservatives inherited a situation in which the wait time would have increased to a decade within five years. They have taken the initial steps toward reducing the backlog and should now continue at speed down the road the Australians have already proven leads to a sleeker and more competitive immigration system.