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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1107

Senator BOLKUS(4.37 p.m.) —By way of background to this debate on migration legislation, I am sure senators will know that when this bill was last before the Senate the opposition opposed it strongly. It is worth reflecting now that when the debate came on last week, indication was given by the government that there had been some significant discussions between the government and the opposition spokesperson, Duncan Kerr. Those discussions have led to significant and welcome concessions from the government. Of course, there do remain some fundamental differences between both sides of parliament. Although a number of issues have been addressed in this legislation and we have sought to find some suitable middle ground in respect of most of them, there are still some areas in dispute.

I think it is important to recognise that discussions have led to an accommodation of different points of view in respect of most parts of the government's proposals in this area. For instance, as was noted just before this legislation was called on, the government has agreed to separate the English education charge from the bill in order that the remainder of the Migration (Visa Application) Charge Bill may proceed, and as a consequence we find our way through to overcoming some of the problems in that area. I also should note at this particular stage that the government undertakes that the regulations which need to follow the passage of the bill will set the English education charge at the current rate, including the concession rate, and that the ceiling will also be set at its current level.

I think what this bill does and what the recent history on this bill does is show the difference in attitudes on this side of the parliament as opposed to the other side. We have seen the measures that were rejected by the Senate at the last debate bandied around by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (Mr Ruddock). In a sense, we have seen them using the immigration stick to try to belt the Senate around. And they have done so in a way which I think has been ill informed and dishonest in terms of the debate and quite inappropriate in terms of the way immigration really needs to be discussed, especially in Australia.

On our side of parliament we believe that the best way to discuss immigration is not to use it as a political tool in the way that it has been used but to use it as the basis of and as a result of informed debate. We should recognise, for instance, that family migration has been and continues to be important; that a lot of people with skills come into Australia as part of the family migration program; and that, though English is desirable, people who do not speak English have made and continue to make a massive contribution to this country. I think those sorts of recognitions and a recognition of the continued importance of migration to Australia, particularly in the global environment, are something that need to be stressed, not just by one in five speeches by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs or not just under his breath by the Prime Minister. They need to be stressed consistently and continually so that there is informed debate in the community.

We do not have that. To the contrary, we have claims that the skilled component of the migration program is at an all-time low. If one were to look at the overall migration program and look at the levels of skills that people who come in under the family reunion part of the migration program bring with them, one would find, as I was advised consistently by officials, that we have at the moment levels of skills which are at an all-time high. That is something that needs to be stressed by this government and something that needs to be picked up, I think, by commentators who look at this issue with blinkers on. I think the responsibility is on government to stress the reality, the facts, the fundamental characteristics of a program which delivers, not just in the skilled part of the program but also in the family reunion part, high levels of skill concentration.

The other point that needs to be made is that this bill is not about levels of migration. We have made it very clear from this side of the parliament—Duncan Kerr has stated it often—that the opposition does not take issue with the government on the size of the program it announced for 1996-97. In fact, when he announced the program, Minister Ruddock took the trouble to say in his media release that the size of the program was about the average of the previous four years of Labor government. You cannot say that and then say that Labor allowed the program to get out of control, as the minister says. If it is out of control, where are the massive cutbacks? If it is out of control, why are we still talking about levels the average of those of the previous four years of Labor government? The reality is that the minister has been talking in code in this area and wants to give the impression to people in the community that he is going to wind back enormously on migration when, as I said, he says that the program is about the average of the previous four years of Labor government.

So the language is language which is designed to tap into a reactionary vein in the community and I think it is something which is quite unfortunate in this debate. If the program was out of control, why didn't the coalition say so explicitly before the election? If it was out of control in the family reunion part, why before the election did the coalition commit itself to specifically providing priority to family reunion within a program of similar size to the one that we had managed? Those who have taken an interest in this debate know that there were some direct effects of the 1 November decision of just a few years ago and those effects were always going to be felt for a short term in the program. To the extent that there is a blip in the program, we ought to recognise that that has been the case.

As I say, we on this side of parliament would rather get into the reality of the benefits of migration and not indulge in what one public commentator on the broader racism debate put quite aptly as dog whistling. Dog whistling is a technique where the message is coded and is pitched at a certain frequency—a frequency at which a certain audience is expected to be tuned in; a frequency that is directed to that audience but can be denied whenever necessary.

It is regrettable that any member of this parliament should indulge in such practice; it is despicable that some government members have done so. But let me say two things. Whilst some are doing it, many, I think, however silently, would join us in rejecting some of these measures, as well as the concept of dog whistling. I think it is really unfortunate that those involved in dog whistling include the Prime Minister. It is all about playing to racist sentiments with sugar-coated language, and it really does this country no service in the short term or the long term for that to continue.

So I say that this legislation does reflect a different attitude to migration. On our side we would rather recognise the contribution of migration; we would rather recognise all those things I mentioned earlier. We do not think there is value in the technique of dog whistling.

A key issue in this bill is the measure that would allow the minister to limit or cap the number of spouse, aged parent and dependent children visas that can be granted in any one year. We on this side of parliament are concerned about a minister having introduced that sort of measure. They could have looked at alternative ways if they were concerned about the numbers coming in, but they have not chosen to do so. The approach taken by the government is one that is objectionable in that it has the direct impact of breaking up families.

Let there be no mistake about the issue of capping the spouse visa. It is not one of immigration alone. It is all to do with the violation of the rights of every Australian. Whether the Australian has been a citizen for one day or for six generations, whether that Australian is of Chinese, Greek, Vietnamese, Lebanese, African or English descent, it is all about violating that person's right to have a family and to be with that family.

This legislation makes a mockery of the Prime Minister's commitment to families. It undermines any capacity that people in these circumstances have to be together. In essence, it produces two sorts of families. You can have two sorts of families living in the same street: those who have a right to be together and those who, under this legislation, would be separated because of the government taking a deliberate measure to either cap and kill or cap and queue.

If this legislation were to be passed by the parliament, it would mean that any such Australian would have his/her right to choose to marry restricted. The government has already made it clear that it intends to set a limit on the number of spouse visas that can be issued in each year. This will mean that, if you are a long-term resident and citizen of Australia and are travelling or working overseas—as it is increasingly more common for people to do so; I think we find tens of thousands of Australians doing it every year these days—and you meet a person whom you decide to marry and to bring back with you to start a family, you can be lucky if you make the decision early enough in the life of the program when there are still some visas to be granted. But too bad if you meet that person towards the end of the program. In those circumstances, `try again and good luck for next year' is the attitude that the government is taking.

It is objectionable enough in respect of spouses. It is equally unthinkable in the case of dependent children. There are many scenarios that will arise and do arise. The parent may be in Australia and their children are overseas, or the relationships are born overseas, as are the kids. What we are going to have here is the situation where we will have parents in Australia who, year after year, will be unable to have their dependent children in their care. There are cases, for instance, involving broken marriages. There are cases where the child may be the subject of abuse. There may be one parent overseas and the parent in Australia is unable to bring that child to Australia simply because this government is setting the maximum number of dependent children that can be sponsored. You are simply playing lottery with the lives of families in this respect, and that magic number may have been reached.

These scenarios are not hypothetical. There are already cases where people need to bring their dependants and their spouses here quickly. The sorts of barriers that the minister is putting in place are barriers that will call the immigration policy into public disrepute. When the minister says, `These measures are crucial to restoring public confidence in immigration,' I think he may have that objective, but there is no doubt that the sorts of measures he is continuing to propose will have a directly contradictory effect.

We do not need to forever quote what the current minister said about policies that keep families separated. We do not need to go back to the statements he made in 1989, where he said that it was unconscionable for a government to say halfway through the year, `We've had spouses now. We're going to close off that category. No more people in that category can come to Australia.'

Senator Harradine —And who was in government at that time?

Senator BOLKUS —He was talking then of a proposal that the previous government did not proceed with. He said at the time that he was pleased to see that the government had not chosen that course. Senator Harradine, we were in government at that time, and I am pleased to say that I did not resort to measures like this over the last three or four years when I was responsible for immigration.

So if you look at the migration program—look at the minister's claim that it is out of control, look at the figures over recent years, look at planning levels, look at outcomes and look at the points that people need to obtain to migrate—you can very quickly come to a conclusion that there are other alternatives that this government could have taken. But the government wanted to play politics with this issue, and that is what they have done.

In the interim period, since this legislation was last debated in this place, Duncan Kerr has had discussions with the government in an endeavour to find a reasonable way to remove the heat from this debate. I think it is fair to say that Mr Kerr thought that we had reached agreement whereby the government would be able to cap and queue the aged parent category but not proceed with the other capping arrangements in terms of spouses and children. We do have a responsibility for caring for our elderly parents. That is one we should respect. The opposition has, in discussions between the minister and Mr Kerr, come to what we think is an arrangement whereby the government would proceed with one, but we will oppose the introduction of capping and killing, particularly killing, when it comes to the rest of the family, spouses and children.

I could go on at length in respect of these issues, but I think I should address the issue of the Sex Discrimination Act and the arrangement that was reached there. Senator Stott Despoja talked about that, both today and last week. I think one of the clear objectives of the discussions between the shadow minister and the minister has been to recognise that we really cannot dictate an outcome from our side. We would like to have some influence in terms of the policy that finally gets through this parliament.

Although we have had in principle objection to amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, the arrangement that was finally reached is one where, at the end of the day, the impact of the government's measures is much less than it would have been had they got what they set out to get, and had what they set out to get went through this parliament. The impact is minimised by the fact that we are not talking here about discrimination as against one sex in terms of the letter of the law, but I do take the point that we need to monitor closely the operation of this law to ensure that, in practice, women are not affected and disadvantaged in the way that some people have feared.

Once again, I think the full impact of the overall operation of this exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act that the government is seeking needs to be closely monitored—and I am sure it will be—to ensure that people are not disadvantaged in the way that many witnesses before the Senate committee process fear they might be.

We are talking here of a proposal which the government has agreed to tone down—to radically reduce the cohabitation period from two years to one year. As a consequence of that government undertaking to reduce the cohabitation period from two years to one year, the opposition has felt able to support the amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act in the belief that the legislation would not in practice have the negative effect that has been feared.

I turn finally to the question of citizenship. In this particular area we have been on the record as saying that the opposition could give in principle support for the measure but that we did have concerns about its open-endedness in respect of the proposed citizenship provisions and about the capacity to make some people, particularly children, stateless as a consequence.

The opposition welcomes the supplementary explanatory memorandum, which Minister Ruddock has tabled in the House. It is one that was brought forward at the opposition's request. It clarifies what the government means by its action. The government intends to act in cases where there is an intention to defraud. That being the trigger point in terms of implementation of the amendments to the citizenship provisions, it is clear that the opposition can support the government with respect to amendments that cover citizenship.

We have concerns about the question of statelessness. A person, by accepting Australian citizenship, may have found themself to be without citizenship of their former country. There is a capacity under these provisions that, maybe 20 or 30 years later, they might even lose Australian citizenship. This question needs to be addressed. There are international conventions in place to avoid persons becoming stateless. Minister Ruddock was asked in the House to come back to parliament on this issue when the bill came before the Senate. We would like to hear something of the government's position in respect of this before we take a vote on this particular proposal.

There have been extensive discussions in the last few weeks in respect of this legislation. The government has amended the legislation quite substantially. As a consequence of this, I think we will find much more of it getting through the Senate today.