August 31, 2020

Federation Chamber

Eighteen per cent of Indi residents were born overseas. Many came here because they fell in love with an Aussie or fell in love with the country, and who could blame them?

North East Victoria, in my electorate of Indi, has a long history of offering a new home to migrants: the Chinese who mined for gold in the Ovens Valley; the thousands of refugees who passed through the gates of the Bonegilla reception centre after World War II; the Italians who transformed the King Valley into a food and wine mecca; and the recent arrivals from Nepal, Bhutan, Rwanda, Somalia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name but a few. They breathe new life into our towns, such as UNICEF ambassador, Atosha Birongo, formerly the Wodonga youth ambassador of the year, and the Sikh community, who, after the bushfires, served free meals in Wodonga, Wangaratta, Tallangatta and Corryong. We are stronger and better because of what migrant families have brought to our rural and regional communities.

I share the Member for Bruce’s concerns about the growing backlog and delay in partner visas and the impact on new arrivals who want to make my electorate their home and want to make Australia their home.

At the end of June last year, there were almost 80,000 partner visa applicants in the pipeline. Together with their Australian partner, this makes 160,000 people waiting for the paperwork so that they can start building their future. This was before COVID-19 and the expected blowout in processing times and travel bans. With 90 per cent of applications taking up to 25 months, they now have to be prepared for a two-year wait.

Long processing delays take an emotional and financial toll, especially if one is overseas. Anyone who has done a long-distance relationship can tell you it’s no easy task. Uncertainty is destabilising. If you don’t know when your visa will be granted, you can’t make plans, you can’t start a family, you can’t buy a house and you can’t establish yourself in a job.

For people on temporary visas, COVID-19 restrictions have delayed English-language tests, NAATI tests and health examinations. A young doctor in my electorate is building her career as a regional GP, but her pathway to permanent residency is in limbo because of these delays.

COVID related border closures are having a perverse impact on prospective marriage visa applicants. One Australian constituent of mine had a full wedding planned to marry his Chinese fiancee, but, after she travelled home to China at Christmas, she is now being prevented from re-entering to get married. She is stranded and the prospective marriage visa runs out at the end of October. The man has been contacting me for months. It’s a very reasonable request that, at a minimum, there’s an extension granted to this visa or they risk reapplying all over again.

Families desperate to begin their lives together should be reunited as quickly as possible. Migration has long been the key to Australia’s economic success. The Prime Minister has predicted an 85 per cent drop in net migration this financial year. Migration will be crucial in the COVID recovery, and, when the borders open up, we should prioritise partner visas. We should welcome people who have chosen Australia as their new home, with a partner already in the community. They have a long-term plan and will invest in housing and their children’s education. We should encourage them to move to regional Australia. Growing up in the country, as I can attest, is a great place to grow up. Let’s get them here.

In closing, I want to recognise how the multicultural organisations of my electorate have stepped up for their border communities during the recent border closure.

This closure has brought a sudden increase in police and military presence at checkpoints—a worrying sight for many migrants who faced such frightening circumstances in their previous country. These multicultural organisations have sprung into action, developing frequently asked questions sheets and video and audio resources in Nepali, Kinyarwanda and Swahili, and they coordinate bilingual assistance in applying for permits.

I attended a meeting with these organisations and was impressed by their collaboration and fast action, and I want to recognise representatives from the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council, Albury Wodonga Volunteer Resource Bureau, the Humanitarian Settlement Program at the Red Cross, and the Uniting Church, among others.

I call on the government to take immediate action to process the partner visa backlog and address the consequences of COVID-19 on these applications. If this means recruiting additional staff, so be it. Consider it part of JobKeeper. Maybe call it ‘matchmaker’, if you want to. Call it JobMaker, MatchMaker or whatever. This is serious, and we need to act. It is incredibly heartbreaking and distressing, and we can do a lot, lot better.

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