There has never been a better time for rich foreign investors to buy residency in Australia, after the federal government quietly pushed ultra-wealthy applicants to the front of the line.

An internal document released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act reveals that in August last year, then-Immigration Minister Alan Tudge directed the Department of Home Affairs to prioritise investor visas over nearly every other type of visa applicant.

The direction, which became effective on September 1, ordered that foreigners willing to invest $5 million or more in Australia be conferred number one status, granting them a fast-track to permanent residency (PR).

The decision places ultra-rich individuals on hallowed footing shared only with two other visa types: those filling the most desperate critical skills shortages the country is facing, as well as internationally-recognised professionals, artists, athletes and academics with an “outstanding” record of achievement.

Home Affairs employees were instructed to secondarily assess those investors willing to stump up $1.5 million or more along with other Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) visas before considering any other visa applications.

The impact has been both immediate and spectacular.

According to a separately obtained document, BIIP visa approvals jumped tenfold to hit almost 750 in September and haven’t faltered in the months since.

Investors to help spur the recovery

The reshuffle confirms the government’s preference for wealthy applicants over other demand-based visa streams.

It speaks volumes given pandemic 408 visas, which are designed to maintain essential personnel in “critical sectors” like healthcare, are now considered secondary to investment.

The decision demonstrates a renewed focus on wealthy investors, who are estimated to have contributed some $1.3 billion to the local economy last year.

The Department of Home Affairs said the growth in the program is “to support Australia’s post-COVID-19 recovery by maximising its economic contribution”.

“[Significant investors] help inject additional funds into the Australian economy including into higher risk investments that support emerging enterprises, the commercialisation of Australian ideas and research and development which is a key aspect of economic recovery,” a spokesperson said.

Australia is not alone in rolling out the red carpet to the rich.

Since the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC), everyone from indebted economies like Portugal and international hubs like Dubai began using visas and residency to woo the wealthy.

Closer to home, New Zealand has leveraged its coronavirus credentials, along with its peace and stability, to promote itself as a destination for the rich.

Scores of Silicon Valley billionaires swapped America for Aotearoa when the pandemic kicked off last year, with the two-island nation offering versions of Australia’s visas for $NZ3 million and $NZ10 million respectively.

However, it has also drawn a line in the sand after Jacinda Ardern’s government rejected a proposal to offer 2,000 visas for $50 million a pop.

“We don’t want people paying for passports,” she said.

Inside the investor migration into Australia

As part of the push, the Australian government doubled the annual cap for investor visas from 6,800 last year to 13,500.

Even with quarantine and flight caps, which have frustrated the 40,000 Australians stranded overseas, visa demand looks set to exhaust the extra supply.

In questions submitted to it, Home Affairs stated that “the majority of the 2020-21 program places” would be allocated to the backlog of applications.

Not that the pandemic hasn’t also helped drive new demand, according to property platform Juwai IQI, which helps investors from China buy property in countries like Australia.

“In the 2019-2020 year, we had more than 1,500 applicants, higher than either of the previous two years,” chairman and co-founder Georg Chmiel said, noting the biggest investors predominantly come from the one region.

“China and Hong Kong account for 88.5% of all Significant Investor Visas that have been granted. Two other Asian countries, Malaysia and Vietnam, are also in the top five.”

Despite the influx of applications, immigration lawyers reported approvals were being finalised in just four months, with the Home Affairs office receiving $1.2 million to help it process BIIP places.

Previously, the same approvals have taken up to two years.

“Processing resources have been redirected from the general skilled migration visas, which do not create jobs, to [significant investor] visas,” Melbourne lawyer Lily Ong said, noting 30,000 other visa places had been cut as part of the shuffle.

It came as part of an overhaul of the visa program implemented during Tudge’s tenure, including increasing the threshold for business innovation visas to a minimum of $1.25 million.

“These changes will maximise the economic contribution of these high value investors to get the best possible outcome for Australians,” Tudge said in a ministerial announcement at the time.

It followed a December review which proposed a range of adjustments, including potentially doubling the $1.5 million investment threshold for regular investor visas and incentivising foreigners to invest in regional Australia.

Property the biggest winner

However, for all the talk of innovation and business investment, it is the property market that may receive the lion’s share of foreign attention.

Juwai IQI processed 1,500 applicants last year, enough to snap up one-sixth of all investor visas alone. With many Chinese applicants lured by the stability and lifestyle, according to Chmiel, there’s clearly a strong appeal in investing in Australia property in a rising market and becoming a resident.

“Releasing a flood of wealthy investment visa holders into the capital city housing markets could be a boon for vendors of property above $5 million in price,” he said.

“Instead of coming into the market spread out over the next year or two, many are coming all at once.”

The impact of that is already apparent, according to real estate agency Kay & Burton’s international division, as permanent resident visas are also granted in record time.

“Since last year I have had at least five or six clients who literally just got their permanent residency, and there are a few more pending… they weren’t expecting it to come so quickly,” Melbourne-based agency partner Jamie Mi, said, noting some clients are going shopping with upwards of $5 million in affluent suburbs like Toorak.

Permanent resident status, available to visa holders after four years, allows buyers to snap up property without having to fork out exorbitant fees.

“Another client came to me three days ago. They haven’t got their PR [permanent residency] yet, and if they buy now they would have to pay the stamp duty and get FIRB approval. Based on the $6 million to $8 million value they are looking at, that would mean paying the government a half million in fees,” Mi said.

“If you get your permanent residency, that half million dollars lets you get more value in the best suburbs. So, with the faster visa processing, we have an immediate increase in demand in these key suburbs.”

This article was originally published on Business Insider Australia.