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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5747

Mrs MOYLAN (2:26 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Would the minister inform the House of initiatives taken to minimise processing times for people claiming asylum? Is the minister aware of any other policies in relation to this issue?

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) —I thank the honourable member for Pearce for her question. I know of her genuine interest and concern that issues involving asylum seekers should be resolved quickly and that detention should be for the shortest possible time. It is an ideal opportunity, I think, to explain some of the complexities associated with this issue and to get a sense of proportion and perspective about it.

On 21 August there were only four unauthorised boat arrivals awaiting a primary decision on a protection claim, and all those were awaiting a decision because there were character issues that needed to be determined. So, when we are talking about processing, it is important to understand what it is we are talking about. If we are talking about processing by the immigration department, the processing has been undertaken. If people still remain in detention, it is because there are some other forms of processing that need to be undertaken; that is, processing by a review tribunal, processing of appeals by courts and arrangements to remove people who may have no entitlement to be here—who are not refugees. We have been endeavouring to address all of those areas, and primary decision-making has been expedited very considerably. So, if people arrive in Australia with a genuine intention of pursuing asylum claims with their documents of identity which can give you a clear picture of who they are and where they are from, processing is undertaken in four to six weeks. When you have no documents it can take longer, because there are issues of identity to be dealt with, issues of credibility and the like.

On the review side, what have we been doing? We have certainly implemented a range of legislative initiatives. Some of them took a while to get up, particularly the privative clause. We introduced a 35-day time limit on applications. We sought to limit access to class actions because of the impact that they could have in allowing people who were simply wanting to remain here to get on the in and get a bridging visa offered. We asserted that the codes of procedures for decision makers ought to have primacy. Additionally, we have made use of federal magistrates, and we have continued to work cooperatively with the Federal Court to find ways of streamlining its review processes. The time for resolution of matters within the Federal Court has dropped from 264 days to 154 days last year as a result of the measures that we have been implementing. That is a reduction of almost four months.

I am interested in other policies. I went back to try to find where there were other policies. I had to go back some way because there have not been any policies forthcoming from the opposition while they have been in opposition. But I did find a press release from Senator Nick Bolkus, in which he was referring to some comments of a chief justice. I must say that nothing is new, to find people wanting to express views.

Mr Howard —I always thought you weren't meant to do that.

Mr RUDDOCK —I have to be very careful, Prime Minister. I am only going to quote somebody else. The press release states:

The Chief Justice of the Family Court has clearly not checked his facts before making comments on children in detention the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Nick Bolkus said today.

“Ill-informed and factually inaccurate statements are damaging to the office of the Chief Justice of the Family Court,” Senator Bolkus said.

“To describe the Port Hedland centre as a `virtual concentration camp' is nothing short of emotional and sensationalist nonsense. The centre at Port Hedland is designed to keep family units together with appropriate comfort and dignity while they remain in detention. In particular, an extensive range of high level medical and educational services is provided,” Senator Bolkus said.

His description—

and again I think he was speaking about what the judge had to say—

of the northwest of Australia as `wilderness and remote' typifies an all too common view by people out of touch with mainstream Australia that anywhere outside metropolitan Sydney or Melbourne is not civilised,” Senator Bolkus said.

He went on to say:

“There are already provisions under the law to release minors from detention, where it is in the best interests of the child and this has been done. There can be no excuse for such a senior member of the judiciary to be ignorant of such a basic point.

He also had some comments to make about the question of processing. He said:

The real delay in the refugee determination process occurs when failed applicants decide to pursue litigation. It is the litigation process before the courts that can take years, not the merits determination process.”

To those comments, I could only say, `Amen.'