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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5785

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (7:47 PM) —I rise to speak on this bill, and I welcome doing so as it provides a chance to counter misinformation levelled by those opposite about this matter. At the outset I note that while the Rudd government has brought about many administrative changes to the operation of Australia’s detention and border protection regime, this bill represents one of the legislative steps in Labor’s process of softening immigration detention foreshadowed by Minister Evans in his speech on 29 July and in his media release of 18 March 2009.

Other changes by Labor to our immigration system are being closely watched, both here in Australia and by people smugglers overseas. I will deal more thoroughly with this issue later, but it is important to look at the implications of Labor’s decision to virtually abolish detention debt at this time when there is much greater scrutiny in this area from both here and abroad. Since about August last year, there has been a shift in our immigration policy. We have gone from a strong border protection regime, which included a strong and fair immigration system under the coalition, to a softening of a whole raft of measures. And what has been the result of this? An increase in people-smuggling activities, a surge of boat arrivals and an increased number of overstayers.

The changes outlined in this bill will remove the requirement that certain persons held in immigration detention be liable for the costs of their detention. The policy of billing people for the cost of their detention was introduced in November 1992 by the then Keating Labor government. Speaking during the introduction of this bill, then Labor minister for immigration, Gerry Hand, said:

A primary objective of the Migration Act is to regulate, in the national interest, the entry and presence in Australia of persons who are not Australian citizens.

It is imperative for us to remember this core objective as we look at every piece of legislation that seeks to weaken the established system or to put those decisions into the hands of people smugglers or those who seek to abuse our system through overstaying or noncompliance with their visa conditions, thereby showing a complete disregard for our national interest. This objective was central to the construction of immigration policy under the coalition government.

While this legislation was introduced many years ago with regard to the national interest, it is now being revoked, it appears, with a much greater concern to appease particular interest groups at the expense of the broader national interest. It has been done so with a flagrant disregard for the objectives upon which the act was constructed. The objective of this particular bill is to remove the liability for immigration detention and related costs for detainees, and liable third parties, and to extinguish all outstanding immigration detention debts other than those incurred by convicted illegal foreign fishers and people smugglers.

As those opposite would be aware, the current detention debt regime is administered in a compassionate and fair manner. In fact, less than 2.5 per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 has been recovered, with over 95 per cent of the debt either waived or written off. Indeed, during 2006-07 and 2007-08, immigration detention debt raised was $54.3 million, of which $1.8 million, or 3.3 per cent, was recovered and $48.2 million was written off by the department as uneconomical to pursue, and $4 million was waived.

We need to consider these statistics in light of the fact that, as the departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, confirmed during estimates in May this year, we currently have around 48,000 visa overstayers in Australia. Therefore, it is misleading to say that detention debt is targeted to refugees. The bulk of detention debt is incurred by overstayers who remain here illegally after breaching their visa conditions. As those opposite should be aware, it is DIAC’s policy to write off the detention debt of a person held in detention who was subsequently found to be a refugee. This is in recognition of the Refugee Convention of 1951. DIAC records instances of debts in such cases, but does not issue an invoice or pursue the debt in any manner.

In other cases, those who have incurred a detention debt are invoiced by the department and encouraged, through a range of mechanisms, to pay the debt. These mechanisms include: recording debts on the movement alert list so that the information is available to all departmental employees; advising bridging visa E and bridging visa R holders subject to condition 8507 that they must pay or make arrangements to pay the cost of their detention within a period specified by the minister; and advising debtors that public interest criteria 4009 will prevent the granting of a visa unless the minister is satisfied that appropriate arrangements have been made for the payment. If the debt remains unpaid, there are a number of mechanisms under the Migration Act to facilitate the recovery of debts owed to the Commonwealth by noncitizens in relation to their detention and removal or deportation costs, including seizing of valuables and restraints on the use of property in Australia.

As we have already established, this course of action is rarely, if ever, pursued by the department. As a last resort, the department can pursue the recovery of debt through the courts. However, this too in practice is deemed uneconomical in most instances. Somewhat predictably, this requirement—that immigration detainees be charged for the cost of their detention—has been bluntly criticised by a number of refugee advocates and human rights bodies. Those opposite would have people believe that the coalition is intent upon punishing refugees through the imposition of debt. Such comments are deliberately misleading. The truth is, as those opposite are well aware, that those who are found to be refugees are not required to repay the cost of their detention. The coalition supports existing exemptions and the use of the minister’s power to waive debt.

I find it remarkable that Australia’s system of detention has often been wrongly characterised as one which principally targets refugees and asylum seekers. It is important to bear in mind that detention is not just about refugees and asylum seekers; most of those in detention are overstayers. The department’s 2006-07 annual report states that there were an estimated 46,500 visa overstayers as at 30 June 2007, with 4,718 taken into immigration detention in that year. As indicated before, this figure is now around 48,000 and has remained constant for some time.

DIAC’s statistical information contained in the 2007-08 annual report indicates that 4,514 people were taken into immigration detention during that year. Of those people, 1,865, or 41.3 per cent, were people who had been living in the community but had overstayed or breached their visa conditions. The fact is that in 2007-08 only 10 per cent of those in detention were asylum seekers who had arrived by boat. However, with the surge of boat arrivals since last year, there are now more unauthorised boat arrivals in immigration detention. Indeed, they are coming fast and furiously, with the softer immigration policy being a stronger pull factor. The most recent statistics supplied by DIAC, on 12 June this year, show that a sizeable proportion of those in detention are still people who had arrived legally but breached or overstayed their visa conditions. At 12 June this figure stood at 175, or 21 per cent, of those in detention.

Rather than seeking to abolish detention debt, there is merit in looking at improving administrative arrangements within the department. Abolishing all detention debts will not act as a deterrent against abuse of our immigration programs or against people smugglers who are selling Labor’s softer approach. Senators need to be reminded as to why this measure was introduced in the early 1990s in the first place. At that time Australia was experiencing a surge in boat arrivals seeking asylum from Vietnam. The then Labor government introduced a range of amendments to the Migration Act to try and manage this influx, including mandatory detention, the establishment of the Migration Review Tribunal and the Refugee Review Tribunal, time limits on the lodgement of applications for asylum, and this detention charge.

In stark contrast to the current Labor government, the then Labor government strengthened rather than softened our immigration system in the face of a surge of illegal arrivals. The Labor government at the time acknowledged that the cost of weakening Australia’s borders and compromising the integrity of the migration and humanitarian programs was to lose our capacity to help those suffering in refugee camps around the world. The current Labor government appears to have lost sight of the simple underlying fact that, without effective border control and a properly managed migration and humanitarian program, we cannot offer safe haven to those most in need.

At the time this legislation was enacted, Labor understood the threat that a continued stream of unauthorised arrivals placed on Australia’s humanitarian capacity. So, too, did Julia Gillard in 2004. The now Deputy Prime Minister, as shadow minister for immigration, prepared the ALP policy for border protection in 2004. Her policy advocated: continuing temporary protection visas; continuing mandatory detention; introducing a coast guard; increasing penalties for people-smuggling, including 20-year jail terms, $1 million fines and confiscation of boats; streamlining of the Australian processing regime to make it the same as that applying in refugee camps to help remove the motivation for asylum seekers to risk their lives journeying to Australia in leaky boats; limiting the appeal on the primary decision to one appeal by leave on points of law; quickly sending back asylum seekers found not to be refugees; and fast-tracking manifestly unfounded claims so that they are resolved within a week. Notably, none of these measures have ever been talked about since the Rudd government was elected in November 2007.

Deputy Prime Minister Gillard and many within the ALP must be quietly appalled by this amendment now before us and its significant softening of the strong refugee/humanitarian policy that was first put in place by Labor itself. The Rudd Labor government is the first Australian government since Federation that has not acknowledged the importance of maintaining border protection and the integrity and orderly protection of a sovereign nation’s migration program. The weakening of policy by this government has led to the biggest surge in people-smuggling since 2001-02, when the coalition’s strengthened response began to take effect, soon reducing incidences of people-smuggling to zero.

The detention debt regime was introduced to assist in the proper management of Australia’s border and migration programs, to act as a deterrent to those entering the country unlawfully and to help ensure that Australians did not pay for the detention of people with no claim on their hard earned taxes. The detention debt regime acts as a deterrent through preventing subsequent approval of a visa unless the minister is satisfied that appropriate arrangements have been made for payment—in other words, a person with an outstanding debt to the Commonwealth could not legitimately re-enter the country while a detention debt still existed unless the minister was satisfied that appropriate arrangements had been made for payment or that payment had been waived. Why should people who abuse their visa conditions be allowed re-entry to Australia without first meeting their detention debt obligations? This is not an onerous obligation to place on an applicant. I believe that many Australians would view this as a necessary obligation and one which serves the national interest.

At this time, when people smugglers are informing their customers that the Rudd Labor government has re-opened the back door to Australia, why would we remove one more element of deterrent? Why would we seek to improve the returns of those who traffic humans, who have no regard for the safety of their clients and who have already been responsible for countless lives lost when boats could not even survive sailing out of Indonesian waters? For that matter, why should those 48,000 or so overstayers not have to foot their detention bill when it is likely that they have knowingly and deliberately overstayed their visa? Many are not caught, but if you are caught and put into detention, why should you not meet the financial obligations associated with your own non-compliance?

The coalition has always taken a strong and principled stand on border protection and immigration; the two go hand in hand. Softening immigration laws sends the wrong message. It makes the pull factor stronger—more people are prepared to come and more people are encouraged to overstay because it will be easier in the long run to achieve their objective of staying in Australia. It is essential that Australia has an orderly and properly managed immigration program in order to protect lives and our borders. We also believe that it is important that Australia remains one of the most generous providers of humanitarian and refugee resettlement in the world.

Per capita, Australia has the third biggest refugee resettlement program in the world. This year we will resettle and accommodate 13,750 people. We do not want to encourage abuse of Australia’s migration and humanitarian programs. None of these 13,750 people could afford to pay a people smuggler to deliver them to Australia, and they must remain our highest priority. The coalition is determined to preserve the integrity of our migration programs while actively discouraging the barbaric people-smuggling trade that endangers the lives of people who seek to enter Australia illegally.

The Rudd Labor government, on the other hand, has unravelled all the measures designed to keep our borders secure. These measures have allowed us to effectively manage our migration programs in the best interests of Australia and Australians. It is not just the people smugglers who are interpreting these changes as a softening of government policy; asylum seekers themselves seem to be happy to go on the AM program. We also have comments from the Indonesian ambassador, the international migration office and, indeed, many Australians, judging from letters to the editors of daily papers.

No longer requiring the payment of the cost of detention by those who have no entitlement to be or remain in Australia is one of the measures that, along with others the government has acted to unwind, makes it easier for people smugglers to market Australia as a soft option. Overstayers know that if they are found they will not need to pay any detention debt even if they undertake protracted legal proceedings. From my many years of experience working at the Australian Government Solicitor, where I acted in many cases involving immigration matters, cases are often lengthy and deliberately protracted. As a consequence, large detention debts are wrapped up in circumstances where overstayers have deliberately engaged in litigation in order to prolong their stay. In those circumstances, it is very appropriate for detention debts to be satisfied. Hence, it is important that those 48,500 overstayers who have chosen not to comply with their visa conditions and have been placed in detention should meet their responsibilities. If they fail to do so, their placement on the movement alert list ensures that officials are alerted if they try to get another visa.

While it is very important that debt collection be administered in the most appropriate manner by the department, I believe that any improvements should not come at the cost of watering down border protection policies just at a time when illegal boat arrivals are increasing; nor should they come at a time when the number of overstayers is increasing. As at 30 June 2007, there were 46,500 overstayers, and by 30 June 2008, the figure had gone up to 48,500. There is no doubt that these people know they are overstaying their visas, and they do not appear to care a jot about it. The government must therefore take full responsibility for its actions in seeking to remove this significant deterrent in our border protection system. Accordingly, the coalition will be opposing the bill.