21 July 2022
Hon Clare O’Neil MP
Minister for Home Affairs
Hon Andrew Giles MP
Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs
Re: Major errors in PBO costings of ending temporary protection
I write to alert you to the significant errors with the costing recently published by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) of the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to abolish Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) and grant these visa holders a permanent visa. The documentation of the costings can be found in Appendix F on the Parliament of Australia’s 2022 Election commitments report webpage.1
I wish to highlight these errors before they are relied upon for policy consideration by the Australian Government. I also wish to seek clarification about how these inaccuracies occurred and what assurances the Australian public can have about the quality of the PBO’s work.
In summary, the PBO considers this policy will cost $407 million over the 2022-23 Budget forward estimates period. In contrast, we believe there is clear evidence that ending TPVs and SHEVs will be a cost-saving initiative.
We have identified six major flaws in the PBO’s assumptions.
Incorrect assumption about future arrivals
The PBO document says that “all future first-time TPV and SHEV applicants would instead apply for Permanent Protection Visa (PPV). All visa holders would be granted their visa and arrive in Australia in the same financial year that their application was lodged.”
This assumption makes a critical error in the understanding of the TPV and SHEV policy. People on a SHEV and TPV are part of a group of referred to by the previous Government as the ‘legacy caseload’. This is a finite group of approximately 31,200 people who arrived in Australia by boat before December 2014. Current ALP Government policy, as well as the policy of the previous Coalition Government, is that any future boat arrival will be turned back to their departure point, or otherwise sent to offshore processing on Nauru, never to settle in Australia. There are no future arrivals of refugees who arrive by boat who would be eligible for a TPV or SHEV, or a permanent visa if the policy changes. As such, costings of this policy should focus only on the 19,500 people who are currently on a TPV or SHEV, those who are going through the initial assessment or appeals process and those whose cases might be reconsidered because of lack of procedural fairness under the “fast track” system applied to TPV and SHEV applications. It is not possible for this group to be any larger than the 31,200 people to which the policy applied.
This is a finite group which will not increase.
Critical flaw in assumption about current TPV or SHEV holders leaving
The PBO costing document says that “In the absence of the proposal [to grant permanent visas], TPV and SHEV holders would remain in Australia for the full length of their visa…In the absence of the proposal, current TPV and SHEV holders on 30 June 2022 would leave Australia at an even rate (i.e., the same number of visas would expire each year).”
With this assumption, the PBO has failed to understand the circumstances of refugees granted TPVs or SHEVs. These people have been found to be refugees after going through Australia’s onerous protection determination process. They are unlikely ever to return to their country of origin because they would be at serious risk of persecution. Under the policy introduced by the Coalition Government, once a refugee’s TPV or SHEV visa expiries, they will go through another round of refugee status determination and, once found to still be fearing harm, will be granted another 3 or 5 year TPV or SHEV. Most, if not all, will have their initial refugee status upheld and, under current policy, will remain indefinitely on a TPV or SHEV in Australia.
Therefore, the baseline for assessment is not that refugees would leave Australia but would remain in the country, whether or not the current policy is changed.
No consideration of the cost of constant re-assessment of visas
As noted, refugees who are on a SHEV or TPV have their claims for refugee protection re-assessed every 3 or 5 years. This is a significant administrative cost for the Department of Home Affairs.
The PBO costing assumes that “the departmental expenses of this proposal are immaterial and would be able to be absorbed by the relevant departments, as they would reallocate existing resources”. This assumption ignores the considerable resources required by both the Department of Home Affairs and the Immigration Assessment Authority (within the Administrative Appeals Tribunal) to assess protection applications repeatedly. The assessments for the finite group of people subject to “fast track assessments”– all of whom had to submit their protection applications before 1 October 2017 – is still underway, so the assumption that the “departmental expense is immaterial” is not well-founded. It is difficult to accept that the constant reassessment of the refugee status of people on TPVs and SHEVs is not a significant cost burden to the Department and it is regrettable that the PBO made no attempt to estimate the significant cost saving associated with ending this arrangement.
Misunderstanding about access to settlement services
The PBO assumes that TPV and SHEV holders transitioned onto a permanent visa “would receive Settlement Services support for the first three years in Australia.” This is an incorrect understanding of eligibility for settlement services, which is available for humanitarian arrivals within their first five years in Australia. TPV and SHEV holders transitioned to a permanent visa would not be eligible for settlement services – nor would most need this support since they have been in Australia for over nine years.
The PBO makes the assumption that “Eligible visa holders would access the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)”. However, the PBO costings do not consider the fact the SHEV and TPV holders already have access to the AMEP. Therefore, the cost impact is neutral.
Significant error in calculating access to income support
The costings considered “the increase in welfare and income support payments … calculated by multiplying the average level of transfer payments made to humanitarian migrants by the estimated number of recipients in each year.” This is a significant error, as SHEV and TPV holders already have access to Centrelink Special Benefit.
A better approach would be to consider how many SHEV and TPV holders are currently accessing Special Benefit and then apply this number to other welfare payments (considering that Special Benefit can, in certain circumstances, be slightly lower than other income support payments). The assumption also does not take into account that granting people a permanent visa is likely to increase their employability by reducing one of the barriers to sustainable, long-term employment.
Flawed understanding about access to other government payments
The PBO costings also assume that TPV and SHEV holders who are transitioned onto a permanent visa would have access to a range of other government services, where they currently do not. However, the assumption does not recognise that SHEV and TPV holders already have access to these services, including access to:
- Child Dental Benefits Scheme
- Public hospitals
- Hearing services
- Program of Assistance for Survivors of Torture and Trauma
As such, using the costs of these services in the PBO’s calculations is a significant flaw in the methodology.
Need for greater public scrutiny of the PBO’s costings
Together, these errors highlight a failure to adequately cost this policy. The flaws in this costing undermine public confidence in the ability of the PBO to provide expert and apolitical advice on election commitments. The errors, if not addressed, may impact public policy decisions of the Federal Cabinet. An interrogation of the due diligence and quality assurance measures undertaken by the PBO is required to understand how these errors occurred and then to learn what the PBO is doing to ensure their advice in the future is accurate and of a high standard.
I am available to meet and would welcome the opportunity to discuss these costings with you.
Chief Executive Officer
Refugee Council of Australia