Thursday, July 5, 2012

Vis-à-vis Visa-me: An open letter to Australia

I warn you, this is long and ranty... Also, apologies if any immigration information is incorrect or out of date, but the website is more baffling than Lara Bingle's career.

Australia, we need to talk.

Well, to be more precise, I need to talk and you need to listen. To be even more accurate, I need to whinge and whine and whimper… which as a POM I have been told is my stereotypical right. You just need to sit there and pay attention to me- or at least do a half decent impression of someone who is paying attention to me. If you need inspiration, I suggest observing my Dad when Mum shows him paint charts and asks whether he prefers ‘Hint of Oatmeal’ or ‘Cream Suggestion’ for the hallway.

So here’s the thing, Australia- I like you and I thought you liked me… so I just don’t understand why you want to end it. Not like this. I mean, we’ve had fun, right? It’s been a pretty awesome two years, hasn’t it? So what am I doing wrong? Why do you want to shut me out like this? Is it because you need space? How, when you have a land mass of 7,741,220 km²?

Let’s recap our history together: After our holiday romance in December 2009-January 2010 I packed up my bags, got a visa and jumped on a plane, desperate to see you again and to get to know you better. It’s now been about 2 years and, quite frankly, I feel pretty settled and I’d very much like things to stay as they are… but herein lies the problem- apparently you don’t, because you’ve made it nigh-on impossible for me to get a visa.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you know, I arrived initially on a Working Holiday Visa (Subclass417), primarily because it is the cheapest and, given our Commonwealth ties, the easiest for young Brits to get. All well and good, but I am a little perplexed as to why there are so many differences between the UK and Australian systems given that visas of this nature are generally administered on a reciprocal basis. You see, UK nationals are initially given just one year in Australia and only qualify for a second year if they complete 3 months of primary industry work and apply for another visa- complete with additional visa charge (another $280 making a total of $560, aka just under £370). During both these visas, a British working-holiday maker may only work for each employer for up to 6 months. On the other hand, Australians who are admitted under the UK ‘Youth Mobility Scheme'- and yes, I appreciate that places are limited and that there is a proof of financial security component (you have to demonstrate you have £1800 in ready cash)- pay a fee of £194 (under $300) which entitles them live and work in the UK for 24 months upfront with seemingly no comparable 6 month employment limitation.

Now, admittedly, neither the UK nor Australian systems allow you to apply for permanent residency/indefinite leave to remain after completing a working holiday visa and both come with an age restriction. Apologies if I’ve missed something here, but it seems to me that it is a lot easier to form a connection with an employer, gain meaningful experience and ultimately score yourself a sponsorship (see below) under the British system. Yes, I could have done a three month stint picking oranges or something, but why, when all it would do is cost me more money and get me another year with the same 6-month limitation? I get it- it’s called a ‘working holiday’, not a ‘working holiday that forms the basis of a more permanent move’, but I still feel that this doesn’t explain the difference in treatment.

Anyway, having made some great friends, formed even closer relationships with the family I have here and well and truly bonded with Sydney (aside from the odd flirtation with her grungy sister in Victoria), I realised that a year wasn’t enough. So, after figuring out what I wanted to do career-wise (we’ll come to that) and mindful of the aforementioned restrictions, after a brief sojourn to Europe, I came back to Sydney to undertake a Master’s in PR and Advertising at the University of New South Wales.

I shan’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that, at a cost of about $25,000 (not including student visa and compulsory health insurance) this course has been far from what I expected. I can’t help but laugh when I remember how worried I was that I wouldn’t be given a place, and how delighted I was to hear that I’d been accepted. What followed was a year of stress, frustration and disappointment, primarily stemming from the fact that UNSW is happy to accept onto communications courses students who are manifestly unable to communicate. Irrespective of my disillusionment, I can honestly say I worked bloody hard- habitually doing more than my fair share when it came to group work and going the extra mile as regards my individual projects. Final results are to be released soon and I’m crossing my fingers that it has paid off.

And now we come to the crux of the matter: Given that my student visa runs out at the end of September, what does Lou do now?

I have family here, but as much as I adore them, they aren’t directly related enough for me to get any kind of immigration help from them. I must say, I can’t help but harbour an irrational jealously of Australians whose English ancestors were adventurous enough to jump on a boat and switch hemispheres. Bear in mind, I do not descend from a long line of risk-takers. In fact, my Mother caused a few ripples in the community when she decided to go to university in Southampton (a shocking 178km from her home in Birmingham); you can only imagine the veritable social tsunami that followed her subsequent moves to the Middle East and South East Asia.

Why not study more? Well, I considered this, but aside from the epically disappointing experience I’ve just had, frankly I can’t afford to… and there’s also the matter of 18-month graduate visas (subclass 485) being restricted to occupations on the Skilled Occupation List, so even if I did do another year’s study it wouldn’t get me anywhere… except more in debt. In fact, apparently completing a Master's at a supposedly prestigious degree is pretty meaningless- if only I wasn't a fluent English speaker, I could have just enrolled in one of those crappy night courses run by dodgy colleges in the city!  

Some might suggest that you aren’t that bothered by my plight and that your moves to lower the entry requirements for many university courses whilst setting a personal financial requirement of $18,610 per student indicate a desire to attract as many rich foreign students as possible, irrespective of their academic capability or suitability… I’m not saying I would, but some might.

And what of the Skilled Occupation List (SOL)? Well, obviously certain professions and skills are more in demand than others- and rightly so. Under the Aussie system, if you have highly desirable medical or engineering qualifications, of course you should be welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, there is nothing even vaguely relevant to me on this list- unless I was to relapse and go crawling back to the law… Oh, if I only I was a qualified Cartographer, Lift Mechanic or Shipwright! Curse my secondary school careers advisor! Maybe they were just bitter because their job isn’t on the Skilled Occupation List either.

So what’s left? Well, you can be sponsored by other people- either an employer or a spouse/de-facto. We’ll return to that first category, but suffice to say, I have been single for almost 4 years and remain unattached, so getting a bloke to sponsor me isn’t really an option. “Why not just fake it?” people have said, but I’m afraid I’m too proud, stubborn and law-abiding to cheat the system… Although I know plenty of people who have (By way of an aside, Australia, you really need to get your act together on the whole gay marriage front… As a female, ginger, Welsh person with bizarre earlobes, I’m surprised Gillard is being so harsh to a minority group).

But I digress…

Naturally, there are plenty of bureaucratic hoops to jump through if you want to bring your non-Aussie partner here, just as there are in the UK and in most other countries. You have to prove you have been in a de facto relationship for the entire 12 months immediately prior to lodging your visa application, which means providing enough supporting documentation to sink a (citizen)ship. However, as regards the individual applicant, all they have to do is satisfy some basic character and health requirements- whether or not that person is intelligent, hardworking or willing and able to contribute to society is irrelevant. That being said, it is, I believe, a basic entitlement of every Australian to be with the person they love/bought online (joke), and of course the State must allow and enable this. Maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve been single for so long and am steadily turning into a Crazy Cat Lady… incidentally that position too is notably absent from the Skilled Occupation List.

Long story short, when all is said and done, my only option of staying here is by being sponsored by an employer (subclass 457 visa)… Which again is less than simple. I have a degree in Law and International Legal Studies from four years of study in the UK and Hong Kong. I have also lived in Cambodia, where I worked as a lawyer and a journalist. I speak passable German, some French and a few words of Khmer in addition to my fluent English and impeccable Bullshit. Then there’s the matter of my work in Australia and recently completed Master’s degree in PR and Advertising, adding more letters to the end of my name and experience to my CV.

However, apparently all of this is meaningless and the first question any prospective employers ask is almost always about my visa status. I have since discovered that sponsoring someone, especially as a big company, is really not that arduous from a time or financial point of view- if you’re already admitted as a sponsoring organisation it’s $450, excluding migration agent fees. Nevertheless, no one seems willing to take me on or for that matter even give credence to what I’ve done in the past, citing the necessity of ‘x years of agency experience’ and treating me like a 21-year old fresh graduate… No offence to 21-year old fresh graduates. I should add that my current employer was ready to sponsor me, but the business has fallen on hard times and will be closing at the end of the month. Sod’s law eh?

So, it’s something of a catch-22 situation:

I am seemingly unable to get a job without experience, but cannot get experience without a job… and I can’t get either of those things here without a visa, which it seems practically impossible for me to do. In short, I’m stuck between Uluru and a hard place… and that hard place is seeming more and more like the UK- a country I feel no connection to and have spent less than one year in since 2006.

Oh, and then there’s the increase to the minimum salary for employer sponsorship visas to $51,400*. Oh, except it's not, is it? Be honest Australia- given mandatory superannuation contributions, it's actually more like $56,000, isn't it? Just a thought, but isn’t this a bit arbitrary given the discrepancy between different industries? I mean, I know there are different rules relating to particularly desired skills and that, no matter the job, you have to pay the ‘market rate’… but what if an individual wants to enter an industry known for low salaries? What if a position in a certain field is generally paid at $45,000 and one of comparable skill and responsibility is generally paid at $50,000 in another? Forgive me if this is too semantical- but it seems that the current system is geared to helping those who are essentially experienced and well-paid, and not necessarily those who are fundamentally intelligent, skilled, talented or jam-packed with potential.

I mean, you can’t honestly be suggesting that instead of working my arse off for the last couple of years, getting experience, paying taxes and trying to achieve the best possible grades in my degree, I should have invested my energies into looking for an Australian man to entrap/have a fake marriage with? Or maybe I should have tried to cheat the system in other ways- by working more than the 20 hours allowed on my student visa (during term time), bribing a farmer to sign off on three months of regional agricultural work, offering to pay my own sponsorship fees or simply being rich enough to study for an infinite period of time? Believe me, I know people who fit into all of the above categories, all of whom seem to be in a much better position to stay than me.

Like I said, I just want to moan and complain a bit- I don’t expect you to do anything, because at the end of the day it’s my fault/bad luck that I don’t fit into any of the necessary visa categories, which are, after all, there for the good of the Australian nation. I guess I’m just frustrated because, the simple fact is I now call Australia home: My friends are here, my family are here and I feel this is where I belong.

Here are just some reasons why:

  • I’ve slurred my way through the Triple J Top 100 on Australia Day, dressed up like an idiot for ‘Christmas in July’ and pretended I know something about horseracing on Melbourne Cup Day. 
  • Time and time again I’ve complained about terrible mobile phone reception, the ridiculous cost of books and wondered why oh why oh why aren’t there any H&Ms?
  • Having watched three series, I get the obsession with Masterchef and I too am perplexed as to how Guy Sebastian still has a career and why they won’t take Kyle Sandilands off the radio. 
  • I now understand that whilst it is totally acceptable to drive for 8 or 10 hours to see your parents in another State, a night out in a different postcode (I mean you, people of Bondi) is a scary prospect. 
  • I am culturally aware enough to mock hipsters, bogans, coasties, private school types, Sydney suburb stereotypes and above all whinging POMS in an informed and occasionally amusing way. 
  • My affection for coffee has developed into passionate love at the expense of my relationship with tea, I see sushi as a staple part of my diet and I now use the term “SmallBar” (or “Smar”) as not just an indication of size, but a genre of establishment in its own right.
  • I am no longer perplexed by schooners, shocked by ‘Coon’ cheese or places with names like 'Woolloomooloo' and I’m afraid the marvel of plastic banknotes has well and truly worn off. I no longer affix a ‘th’, ‘st’ or ‘nd’ to the date, feel comfortable with the concept of shortening or colloquialising every word possible and I’ve even started saying ‘zucchini’ and ‘capsicum’ instead of courgette and pepper- I draw the line at ‘eggplant’ though- that’s just plain nonsensical. 
  • Lord help me, I’ve fallen victim to the habit of calling everywhere outside of Australia simply ‘overseas’ and have even been accused of elongating my vowels and going up at my sentences. 

Not bigging myself up or anything, but when you do the maths I’ve also given you a fair bit of dollar. If we add up all my spending- visas, taxes, rent, food, clothes, mobile phone, travel (especially as international students are ineligible for concession tickets on public transport- cheers for that), entertainment and uni fees, I reckon it’s a pretty sizeable amount…and that doesn’t even factor in all of the money I’ve spent supporting the drugs and gun industries. I’m kidding, I think both of those things are rubbish… Unless the drugs are prescription and the guns shoot water. Or chocolate. Or rainbows.

You want 'skills', yeah? I'll give you skills:

  • I’m not a bad person- really I’m not. I’m polite to bus drivers, converse with taxi drivers and, despite how generously hospitality staff are paid in Australia, I always tip. 
  • I hold open doors, offer my seat to older people and have perfected the art of laughing convincingly at crap jokes. 
  • I am pro-diversity and anti-discrimination, as evidenced by the ease at which I will drink both white and red wine. 
  • My family and friends mean everything to me and I relish the opportunities I have to show my love and appreciation by photoshopping things onto their faces and sharing my favourite LOLCAT pictures. 
  • As my alter-ego DJ Mediocre, I formed an important (yet underappreciated) part of the emerging underground Cambodian mash-up scene with my partner-in-crime MC Average. Unfortunately, Musical Dissident isn’t on the Skilled Occupation List. 
  • Though no longer in a position to do pro bono professional work, I give to charity (shopping at Vinnie’s counts, right?) and I’d love to give blood, but unfortunately as I lived in the UK for six months during 1980-1996, I am ineligible to do so. I promise as soon as you develop a test for vCJD, I’ll let you stick a needle in my arm faster than you can say ‘human pincushion’. 
  • I can say the alphabet backwards with no discernible mental exertion and create humorous portmanteaus faster than you can Google what the hell that word means. 
  • I can hold my breath for a respectable amount of time that would definitely enable me to escape the clutches of any bad guys if I was trapped in a pond or other watery setting… although there doesn’t seem much point improving this, as ‘Free Diver’ is also absent from the Skilled Occupation List. 
  • I can always come up with enough examples to make a decent bullet-point list. 

However, by way of full disclosure, I am also fully aware of my limitations and weaknesses, which include:
  • I am a self-diagnosed grammar Nazi. I have been known to visibly wince upon reading outstandingly odious misapplications of to//too/two and there/their/they’re. Sad but true- I derive a sick pleasure from correcting typos and when I learned how to use a semicolon properly I high-fived myself. 
  • As you may have noticed, as well as a propensity for written verbosity, I have a tendency to overuse ellipsis when I write, perhaps in a subconscious effort to lend an air of mystery and drama to my musings… 
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but unfortunately the road to the gym is not. When it comes to exercise I have been known to procrastinate with more commitment than a mental asylum. 
  • I believe people who walk too slowly or eat too loudly warrant public castigation and, in particularly offensive instances, electroshock therapy. 
  • There is something weirdly shaped about my ear apertures that renders me unable to comfortably wear in-ear headphones, which either fit badly or pop out altogether. I therefore live in fear of ‘beat leakage’, i.e. of being one of those selfish people who subjects those around her to an irritating stream of ‘tst-tst-tst-tst-tst’. 
  • I have an irrational fear of visiting hairdressers. 
  • I cannot wink. 

So there you go Australia, that’s me in a rather large and wordy nutshell. I know I can’t do anything to change your mind and that it’s just the way things have to be… but I guess it just feels unfair and I’m having a hard time accepting it.

I suppose if worst comes to worst, I’ll just have to accept your decision, pack up and move on, because it’s beyond my control and, at the end of the day, it’s not me, it’s you.

Yours always, and especially if you loosen the immigration rules,


*Edit: New as of 1 July 2012