New Australia visa category - is it a good thing?

- Posted in Australia by Dominicon 27 November 2012

The new Australia visa
program is intended to attract
foreign investment - but is it
a good thing?

The Australian government began taking applications for its latest visa category this weekend - the Significant Investor Visa. For AU$5 million, wealthy investors can get almost immediate access to an Australia visa and, if they like, permanent residency a few years down the line leading some to label the new category as the 'Golden Visa' but is it as bad as it sounds?

The new Australia visa program was first announced by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in May of this year but the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) were not forthcoming on further details until October when the criteria were outlined by the minister.

Significant Investor Visa

In order to be eligible for the Significant Investor Visa, an applicant must invest AU$5 million (£3.2 million) in Australia's economy over a period of four years; this can be done in any of the following ways:

  • Commonwealth, state or territory government bonds
  • Managed funds regulated by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission
  • Direct investment into proprietary Australian businesses

Applicants do not need to meet points test requirements and there is no age limit to apply.

Furthermore, holders of the Significant Investor Visa need only to reside in Australia for 160 days over the four years, after which period they will be eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Why has it been criticised?

Critics argue that the program essentially allows wealthy foreigners to buy their way into Australia, bypassing waiting times and the rigorous checks other applicants are required to go through.

Philip Huggins, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, claims the lack of checks threatens to damage the character of Australia.

"What tests are made on how applicants have made their money?" said the bishop. "Have Fair Trade principles or the conventions of the International Labour Organisation been honoured? What character references are required in their application?"

The criticism is particularly harsh given Australia's ongoing asylum seeker problem; record numbers of asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters by boat in 2012 and even a reinstatement of controversial policies to process arrivals offshore haven't dented arrival numbers.

Bishop Huggins contrasted the harsh policies implemented by the Australian government for asylum seekers with the new visa category.

"Such people, grateful for a fair go and hard-working, now strengthen the character of our nation, without question," said the archbishop, adding that he doubted whether investors would arrive in Australia with a similar sense of gratitude.

The realities of the program

As Australia's mining boom begins to wind down and the frenzied investment from China begins to slow, Australia is looking for other ways to attract investment from overseas - in particular from China.

As China's economy continues on track to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world, western nations are scrambling to attract Chinese investment; both the UK and the US have made it easier in recent months for Chinese tourists to visit.

Australia's geographical location means it is in prime position to benefit from Chinese tourists and investment; indeed, the Significant Investor Visa is even categorised as the subclass 888 - traditionally a very significant and important number in Chinese culture.

On announcing the program's opening for applications, Minister Bowen said interest in applying - especially from Chinese investors - had been extremely positive.

"Since I announced the new Significant Investor visa in May, there has been substantial interest from potential migrant investors and the financial services sector so I expect many people to apply," said the minster.

What does this mean for regular applicants?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government has made several changes to the Australian immigration system this year with the most stand out change being the introduction of the SkillSelect system as part of the Australia visa application.

The system allows the Australian government to prioritise certain skills and occupations which are in need across Australia; during the mining boom, these priorities were centred on engineering and construction occupations but are now expected to shift towards the health and social services industry.

The intention of the system is to allow Australia to attract the 'brightest and best' from around the world and it is in keeping with this that the Significant Investor Visa program has been introduced.

"The Significant Investor visa is an important new tool in the armoury of Australia's financial services sector as Australia looks to compete in our region for high wealth and high skilled migrants and the capital that comes with them," said Mr Bowen. 

Leonie Cotton, casework manager at the Australian Visa Bureau, says the program is essential to Australia's economic future.

"Asian investment has proved crucial to western economies and Australia joins the UK, New Zealand and Canada in having programs which prioritise wealthy investors," said Ms Cotton. 

"The criticism being levelled at DIAC has not been unexpected and while critics may feel they have some justification, it's certain that the program will yield both immediate and long term benefits for the Australian economy, particularly should the applicants choose to become permanent residents."

- Dominic Ladden-Powell is the Online Editor for the Australian Visa Bureau.