The Department of Home Affairs will deliver "bold policy reform" in the form of the government's new Migration Strategy, Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil says, but internal culture remains a big problem.
The new strategy, released on Monday, is expected to play a role in halving net overseas migration, from 510,000 last financial year, down to 250,000 by the 2024-25 financial year.
The government says it will refocus the migration system on filling skill shortages and long-term planning, while making it more difficult for international students to study and stay temporarily in Australia.
But the agencies tasked with rolling out and implementing the strategy continue to struggle with poor culture; with public servants at Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force reporting the highest bullying rates, worst attitudes to senior leaders and culture of APS departments in staff surveys this year.
The surveys took place under the leadership of Mike Pezzullo, who was sacked last month for 14 breaches of the APS Code of Conduct, including using his role to seek to gain benefit or advantage for himself.
"There's really well documented public concerns about some of the things that have happened in the Home Affairs Department over the previous years," Ms O'Neil said at a press conference in Canberra on Monday.
"It is a really important problem to me and one that Steph Foster, and [Immigration Minister] Andrew [Giles] and I share a deep passion for addressing," she said of Ms Foster, the newly appointed secretary.
"I would say that I see - already - changes in the department since I became minister.
"People are excited about being involved in a department that's at the threshold of bold policy reform for government, and I think that's really helping.
"But by no means can we fix all the problems and it's something that [Ms Foster] and I are working really hard on," she said, forecasting further announcements next year.
New barriers for international students
The Migration Strategy was released in full on Monday, following a review, led by former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, which described Australia's system as "broken", poorly targeted and in need of major reform.
"We're going to make sure that we bring numbers back under control, that we build a better planned system around essential things like housing, and perhaps most importantly of all, that we build a program that delivers for the national interest," Ms O'Neil said.
The government estimates net overseas migration peaked in the last financial year at 510,000, and that its new strategy will bring this down to 375,000 by the end of 2023-24.
The strategy will include higher English language requirements for international students, shortening graduate visas and greater scrutiny of education providers.
Closing COVID-19 concessions - including a special visa category, and uncapped working hours for international students - is also expected to reduce the number of migrants.
"We've put forward measures here that will help us bring net overseas migration back to normal in a very short time frame," Ms O'Neil said.
"If we do not succeed in that, of course there are other things that we can do," she said, when asked if the government would introduce caps on international students.
Coalition hits out at new strategy
The strategy will also focus on attracting workers to sectors with skills shortages, out of major cities and into regional Australia.
A new Skills in Demand visa will be introduced in late 2024, while national cabinet will commence a multi-year planning model for migration, and visa processing for regional Australia will be designated as the highest priority.
While the government has blamed the Coalition for "a decade of neglect" of the migration system, opposition spokesperson on immigration Dan Tehan claimed Labor was at fault for high levels of migration.
"Australians don't trust Labor to manage immigration because the Albanese government has issued more than 175,000 COVID work visas despite the pandemic ending before they were elected," he said in a statement.
He criticised the time taken to release the Migration Strategy, given Mr Parkinson's review was finalised in March, and said regional Australia had been treated "as an afterthought" in the strategy.
Ms O'Neil said the Coalition had wavered on its migration stance, calling for different things: "I don't take any of their comments even remotely seriously."