WEALTHY Asian business people are lining up for the federal government's new ''golden ticket'' visa, which waives the usual criteria for skilled migrants - such as an ability to speak English - in exchange for a $5 million investment in Australia.
As Australia's refugee debate rages on, the federal government is rolling out the welcome mat for a select class of migrant and it expects 700 new wealthy residents annually under its Significant Investor Visa program, which opens for expressions of interest on Saturday.
For permanent residency, migrants must have $5 million and live in Australia 40 days a year for four years.
With their eyes on a bucket of funds worth potentially $3.5 billion a year, Australia's biggest investment banks and consultancy firms have been busy spruiking the new visa.
Migration agents say that while most potential applicants are China's new rich, millionaires across south-east Asia, India, South America, Russia and Taiwan are also keen.
Chinese-born Henry Yang, 42, came to Australia three years ago on a subclass 163 visa - a business skills migration program. He has built up a successful $3 million business exporting Australian wine to China, but he is sceptical about the value of the significant investor program.
He believes entry requirements should focus on entrepreneurship and economic value, not just capital. ''I don't think it's a sustainable system for a visa,'' he said. ''It sounds like [the government] is selling Australia.''
Others also find the idea a bit unseemly. "This is buying a visa," Monash University migration expert Bob Birrell said. "[This visa] treats Australian residence as a commodity."
Under the federal government's broad program criteria, each state can stipulate where the $5 million is to be spent. New South Wales is aggressively competing for the wealthy migrants and wants $1.5 million from every $5 million invested in a state infrastructure fund. In Victoria, migration agents are waiting on the Baillieu government to issue guidelines.
Businessman and Sydney Swans chairman Richard Colless pushed for the visa with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Mr Colless is chairman of an Australian property fund at global investment bank Moelis & Co and is said to be wooing applicants. "We would be one of many to say this is a great opportunity to attract long-term capital," Mr Colless said.
Migration lawyer Michael Sing, said it was no coincidence the visa application number was 888, when the Chinese consider eight a lucky number. "We think this visa is aimed squarely at the emerging wealth in China."
Jock Collins, a professor of social economics at the University of Technology Sydney, said that while there was a air of queue-jumping about the visa, many other developed nations - including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, had set up similar programs to tap into Asia's new wealth.
"We're competing pretty vigorously with every other country in the world who wants these people and their money. I think this is a valid category of immigration,'' he said.
''We're bringing people, not only their money, but also their entrepreneurial experience and their innovation."
Interest in the new visa - referred to as the ''golden visa'' among migration agents - is strong, according to most of the agents interviewed by Fairfax Media.
Agents, lawyers and investment bankers, who have been conducting seminars on the visa for business people in China, say it is more attractive than former business skills visas because it has no English language test and no age limit.
It has also shortened the required length of stay in Australia, allowing migrants to live in two countries and look after their global businesses.
The new visa is part of a revamped skilled migration program. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimates that 700 visas will be issued to significant investors each year. There is room for about 7000 places under the business skills program.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the visa was ''an important new tool in the armoury of Australia's financial services sector as Australia looks to compete in our region for wealth and highly skilled migrants and the capital that comes with them".
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the visa had the Coalition's support. He said the government should make sure the program was not just about accessing capital but about new residents who could make a significant contribution.
A recent report on Chinese wealth by research group Hurun - known for its annually published China Rich List - found the economic powerhouse now has more than a million millionaires and 85 per cent of them plan to send their children abroad to be educated.
"For high net worth individuals, particularly from south-east Asia and China, Australia's education system is a huge attraction," Deloitte immigration spokesmanMark Wright said. The firm is dealing with between 75 and 100 wealthy individuals interested in the new visa.