A liberal society like Australia should recognise that many intimate relationships matter, and in its approach to immigration the federal government should try as much as possible not to prioritise some relationships over others — unless it has a very good rationale for doing so.

recent report by the Scanlon Foundation has shed some important light on how the current family migration scheme in Australia is failing foreign-born citizens, permanent residents, and their adult parents who want to join them in Australia.

According to the report, there are almost 140,000 Australian residents waiting between 12 and 40 years to be permanently reunited with their parents. The best route is to fork over $48,365 per parent. This contributory visa currently has an expected processing period of 12 years. The cheaper, non-contributory version of this visa costs $4,990 per parent and the application may take 29 years to process.

Since the Parkinson review into Australia’s migration system was established in September 2022, much of the public commentary has focused on the unfairness of leaving adult citizens and their parents in limbo. The expert panel itself puts it bluntly: “Providing an opportunity for people to apply for a visa that will probably never come seems both cruel and unnecessary.”

There is no doubt that the government urgently needs to reform its approach to migration, and visas need to be processed within a reasonable time-frame so that prospective immigrants can move on with their lives. There are, however, two other unfair elements baked into the Australian family migration system that also need addressing.

First, there is the cost of the contributory visas. A visa of almost $50,000 only allows affluent foreign-born citizens to bring their parents to Australia. But if this visa is meant to promote the interest we all have in enjoying territorially located intimate relationships in an on-going fashion, then it is grossly unjust that the wealthy are given a much better shot at having that interest protected.

The second unfairness is perhaps even more under-appreciated. Why prioritise parents as opposed to other adults that citizens and permanent residents might care deeply about? Whereas some are no doubt very close to their parents, others are very close to an uncle, an aunt, or a third-degree cousin. Whereas some individuals long to spend more quality time with a parent, others would really like to live closer to their best friend.

This point becomes clearer when we recognise that sometimes friends are much more emotionally dependent on one another than immediate family members. A citizen who would genuinely lead a much better life if her best friend was allowed to move to Australia then lacks access to a visa that allows a fellow citizen to bring an adult parent into the country, irrespective of how emotionally close they are.

My point is not that the government should assess the level of intimacy between an adult citizen or permanent resident and a parent.

As a liberal society, we need to respect people’s right to privacy, and be extremely careful not to give bureaucrats power to pass judgements about people’s lives in ways that are prone to be informed by sexist, racist, and classist biases.

My point is only that, in a liberal society like Australia, many intimate relationships matter, and the government should try as much as possible not to prioritise some relationships over others unless it has a very good rationale for doing so. Ultimately it was this important requirement that saw many commentators object to Victorian premier Dan Andrews’s exclusion of friends from the remit of the COVID bubble in 2020, and why at some point the state of Victoria pivoted to allowing friends to visit each other during lockdown.

A fair alternative to an unfair immigration system?

But short of completely opening our international borders, is there a solution available to the Australian government? As I see it, the federal government can have a broader intimate relationship visa that is available to all citizens and permanent residents at a reasonable fee. Because the number of interested parties will be very high, the government can then combine that visa with a lottery scheme that gives every adult citizen and permanent resident an equal chance to bring someone they care deeply about to Australia.

In response to suggestions that a lottery scheme should be taken seriously, the author of the Scanlon report writes:

Just like the faint hope that visa processing times will be faster than anticipated, the slim chance of winning a spot in the lottery will leave families banking on dreams, rather than adjusting to the realities of their situation and fully settling in Australia.”

As someone who has parents overseas, I don’t see why this would leave me “banking on dreams”. We all understand how lotteries work, and we all understand that when everyone has an equal interest in accessing a good or opportunity — in this case, reunification with a loved one — but that good or opportunity cannot be provided to everyone, a lottery may be the only fair way to go about it.

Australians have no appetite for open borders, so we need to come up with a fair way to run our migration schemes. In a world full of refugees whose lives are at risk, it is hard to show that an injustice has taken place when adult citizens are prevented from bringing a parent to Australia. At the same time, if some parents will be allowed to join their adult children in Australia on a permanent basis, we better have a fair system that gives all citizens and permanent residents an equal chance to reunite with someone they care deeply about.


This article was originally published by ABC Religion & Ethics.