The Pacific Engagement Visa: A confluence of regional priorities
Finn van Herten
The Albanese Government made it no secret it believed that Australia’s Pacific diplomacy required a reset and revamp by the time it was elected in May 2022.
A month out from the election, the Australian Labor Party unveiled a ten-part ‘Pacific plan’ which outlined a swathe of priorities including a visa lottery system for Pacific workers, known as the Pacific Engagement Visa, or PEV. This announcement angered some in Australia’s agricultural industry as the PEV would supersede agricultural worker visas targeted at four South-East Asian countries in favour of expanded arrangements for Pacific workers.
Though Labor alleged the Australian Agricultural Visa scheme was flawed, it is perhaps telling that the party was willing to risk some political capital by committing to the redirection – though it should be remembered that the Pacific plan was announced less than a month after it was revealed that the Solomon Islands government was considering a controversial security agreement with China in late March 2022.
Fast-forward a year, and Australia is preparing to introduce the PEV from July 2023.
So, what are the material implications of the PEV for Australia and Pacific nations and, importantly, how has Australia’s geopolitical context impacted its conception?
A more liberal scheme
The PEV comes on top of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and affords new rights to Pacific workers than its existing counterpart.
It is intended to build cultural, business, and educational ties with Pacific nations by permitting 3000 extra workers from participating Pacific nations to work in Australia each year.
Prospective applicants must be aged between 18 and 45, have a formal job offer in Australia, and pay AU$25 to be included in a random electronic ballot selection.
The PEV does not restrict where participants can work in Australia, nor which industry they work in.
This provision represents a departure from previous political rhetoric calling for international workers to be funnelled into regional Australia, where a burgeoning labour shortage has threatened broader economic growth.
Meanwhile, the PALM scheme had allowed agricultural workers from the Pacific to work anywhere in Australia but required that employment in all other sectors be undertaken in regional Australia, though agricultural work is undertaken mostly in regional Australia.
Other liberalisations under the PEV include allowing workers to bring their families to Australia, permitting work with any Australian employer, establishing a dedicated pre-departure support service for applicants, settlement support, and permanent residency which entails access to benefits such as public schooling, childcare subsidies and Medicare.
The PEV significantly expands flexibility and security provisions for Pacific workers, though the 3000-worker annual cap makes up a fraction of the 32,000 Pacific and East Timorese workers who were in or preparing to enter Australia under the PALM scheme in April 2022, and the 52,000 pre-screened workers who had registered interest in the PALM scheme by the same date.
The regional context
Nowadays, there are few speeches and media appearances referencing the Pacific made by prominent Australian politicians – Labor or Coalition – that fail to mention the “Pacific family”, and it is clear the PEV is among a suite of initiatives and dialogues intended to improve local/cultural and official Australia-Pacific relations.
But the scheme may have ramifications in Pacific nations.
Samoa’s then-acting Prime Minister, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, told the nation’s parliament in January that Australia had failed to consult the Samoan government before announcing the PEV and claimed Australia would be “taking” Samoan workers who he believes “will not return”.
Ni-Vanuatu stakeholders have previously alleged the PALM scheme and seasonal work schemes in New Zealand have contributed to a ‘brain drain’ across their islands, but the Australian government has contended that the PALM scheme is designed to develop skills which workers can apply in their home countries after up to four years of work.
However, since the PEV entails permanent residency and will not restrict the industries nor locations in which workers can settle, there may be grounds for such concerns.
The concurrence of moral obligation and geostrategic interests
The comparative benefits of the PEV over the PALM scheme open doors to questions about the influence of geopolitical soft-power competition in the visa’s conception.
Indeed, this question was asked by scholars writing for the Lowy Institute earlier this year, specifically probing whether the PEV represents a genuine partnership drive as Pacific nations recover from COVID-19 and climate-inflamed natural disasters, or whether geopolitical pressures are the greatest factor behind the vision.
The latter would be difficult to disprove.
In mid-April, as she prepared to visit New Caledonia and Tuvalu, Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the National Press Club that “anyone who questions the strategic importance of Pacific islands to Australia’s security needs only acquire the briefest familiarity with history.”
But this stark reflection was immediately preceded by an observation that Pacific nations have long endured foreign power struggles in their region while their “agency” and “voices” were ignored.
Australia’s attitude towards Pacific diplomacy, as demonstrated by its record of humanitarian assistance across the region, has consistently been that it should maintain its position as a middle power – but importantly, soft power talks (literally).
Direct engagement with Pacific nations is the order of the day; for example, since the Solomon Islands-China security pact was announced, the US has flagged new embassies in Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu, and reopened its Solomon Islands embassy after a three-decade exodus.
The PEV’s launch specifically advertises its utility to cultural, business and educational exchange between Australia and Pacific nations, which could be argued as a good exercise of soft power.
This stands in contrast to the PALM scheme which when it was introduced in 2022, streamlining existing Pacific worker programs across Australia, was more geared towards labour in regional Australia and worker’s skill development rather than international connections – though importantly, it also flagged improvements to worker support arrangements and logistical flexibility.
And then, there’s the ever-present climate factor.
The PEV’s introduction follows calls from some leading Pacific figures, such as the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, for able countries to offer migration options for Pacific peoples whose low-lying islands will become uninhabitable if action on climate change is not urgently forthcoming.
There is no suggestion that the PEV meets this brief, nor is any Australian initiative expected to in the immediate future, but its comparatively liberal model, as well as New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category visa which the PEV closely resembles, may offer direction for future climate-related provisions, notwithstanding consultation with Pacific nations who do want “agency” and a “voice” on the future of their citizenries.
Ultimately, the PEV can be positioned against a backdrop of challenging labour, climate and geopolitical conditions, with geopolitics being the most immediate factor.
The Australian government is making a plausible attempt at further localising some of the country’s engagement with Pacific nations with the PEV, making this an intriguing space to watch from cultural, political, economic and strategic perspectives.
Finn van Herten is completing his final year studying a Bachelor of Communication (Social & Political Sciences) and Bachelor of International Studies (China major) at the University of Technology Sydney. He is currently External Affairs Analyst at PremierNational, a government relations and corporate affairs consultancy. Finn has broad interests in seeing Australia develop collaborative relationships with Pacific nations, and the quality of Australia's bilateral engagement with China.