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Report: Government Response
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McKiernan, Sen James
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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Senator McKIERNAN (6:20 PM) —I should start this speech by commending the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs for responding much more rapidly to the Immigration detention centres report than the previous report. This report was presented to the parliament in August 1998, and here we are 13 months later and we get a response to it. Part of the reason for such a speedy response might be that this report was only 41 pages in length and made only two recommendations. So maybe the commendations I am giving to the minister and his department are not quite as fulsome as they ought to be. I think the report could have been responded to much quicker than it has been.
There were only two recommendations made in this report and I want to address both of them. I will deal with the second one first. The second recommendation stated:
The Committee further recommends that during the next parliament the JSCM consider conducting an inquiry into the immigration policy aspects of the detention of illegal fishermen.
The brief government response, which is well worth reading into the record, states:
The Commonwealth Ombudsman released a comprehensive report concerning the role of the department in the detention and removal of illegal fishermen in 1998. In August 1998 the government announced proposed improvements to current fisheries and detention arrangements to address the recommendations contained in the Ombudsman's Report. These improvements include changes to legislative and administrative arrangements for the detention of illegal fishermen and the implementation of some of the Ombudsman's recommendations including substantial improvements to the facilities for detained fishers at Broome and Darwin.
The developments announced by the government substantially address the concerns expressed by the JSCM in their current report. It is not appropriate for the Committee to duplicate work already undertaken by the government.
I do not accept that response. I think it is highly appropriate that the parliament oversee, view, examine and scrutinise the work of government, particularly the work of government in this area.
For my state of Western Australia, the state I represent in this place, it is a real problem. Only last week the Attorney-General, Mr Peter Foss, announced that the prison in Broome was overcrowded with illegal fishers. The repercussions of that were that local offenders or offenders from the region who were sentenced to imprisonment had to be incarcerated in detention facilities away from Broome. Sure, they have to be detained somewhere, but that meant their relatives, the people who wanted to visit them while they were in detention, had to embark on long journeys. Why? Because the detention facility in Broome was overcrowded.
Another reason why the committee ought to consider having a look at this particular aspect is a matter that was reported on the ABC Four Corners program very recently—on 23 August, I believe. Some persons who had come to Australia to fish illegally had been apprehended, detained and sentenced. One of them said that he did not have a problem with being detained in Australia because it was rather like being treated to a hotel—one got steaks, one got ice-cream, one was very well treated; and I have made some comments on this matter before.
The matters remain with us, and they are of great concern if others can profit from coming to Australia, breaking our laws and being detained but being paid while they are in our detention facilities. I am certainly sure the joint standing committee will consider the government's response and will seek to address what is in here. They might encourage the minister to give the committee a reference on this matter.
The other recommendation the committee made was about monitoring, and it states:
The Committee recommends that the JSCM continue to monitor detention practices and suggests that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs request that the Committee again inspect the facilities during the next parliament.
The minister has agreed to this, and there obviously is a great need for the committee to do this. The great need is what is occurring in our detention facilities currently. At the time the joint standing committee visited the detention facilities, on 17 June 1998, there were 394 people in detention. Currently, there are over 600 people incarcerated in the Port Hedland facility on its own. Quite recently, that facility was very close to capacity with only a few spare beds. It was virtually overcrowded. At that stage, the department was looking for another facility where other illegal arrivals might be detained. The circumstances have changed dramatically from the time the committee visited the facilities in order to prepare this particular report.
Other things have happened as well. In all detention facilities around Australia, there have been big problems, problems that have led to dramatic headlines. I will quote just a few of them: the Australian of 23 July: `Ombudsman to investigate refugee mistreatment claims', and it was referring to the facility at Perth airport; the Perth Sunday Times of 25 July: `Detainees riot for four hours'; the West Australian of 26 July this year: `Police end barricade protest by detainees'; the Australian of the same date: `Detention centre escape in spotlight'; the West Australian of 27 July: `Mass breakout from Port Hedland'; the West Australian of 28 June—which is actually going back a bit earlier—`Break-out at Port Hedland'; the Age of Saturday, 31 July: `Fear grips Refugee City, WA'; and the Australian of 28 July: `Illegal immigrants run wild—and free'.
They are mainly talking about Port Hedland, where there was some real difficulty, but there were also some problems at the Maribyrnong facility in Victoria, where quite a substantial amount of damage was done. The matters there are subject to an inquiry by the Commonwealth Ombudsman because some people were removed from that detention facility and incarcerated in other places. The matter is still under investigation. There was also a very large escape from the Villawood detention centre in Sydney. I think 11 persons escaped from that particular facility, not all of whom have been apprehended and returned to custody—or, to use the department's term, recamped. There are some difficulties with the detention centres.
The Senate Standing Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair, has not reached any conclusions on this current inquiry, but it has been diverted from the work that was given to it because of very serious complaints that were made to the committee by detainees at certain centres. The complaints were so serious that we could not overlook them. We had to divert from the 13 terms of reference that were specifically given to us by the department to investigate those complaints ourselves.
On one particular instance I, as chair of the committee, referred one particular complaint to the relevant police forces for their inquiry. It was something that I felt at the time was much bigger than the committee itself. It was not our role to investigate possible criminal conduct. The committee will further deliberate on these matters and will reach conclusions. Incidentally, on that activity I undertook as chair, the committee endorsed my actions in referring the matters to the police. The detention policy and regime of the government is something that has to be constantly kept under scrutiny by the parliament of Australia and indeed by the community of Australia.