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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4510

Dr STONE (Murray) (10:45): I rise to also speak on the Migration Amendment (Complementary Protection) Bill 2011. This is all about making sure that we do in fact have orderly entry to Australia and that refugees are given priority according to their needs, not according to whether they can raise the funds to pay a smuggler to take them through various countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia to get onto a boat and then find themselves fast-tracked into Australia by the back door. We know that this government has caused an extraordinary upsurge in the profits to be had by people smugglers, who have and probably always will have willing buyers. We had an orderly system up to the time when the Rudd and Gillard governments were elected.

We certainly acknowledge that there are situations where people need protection that will be beyond the criteria of the UNHCR, but our system allows for that through ministerial discretion. I was rather amused to hear the previous speaker refer to that ministerial discretion—that is, the use of the minister's responsibilities to make decisions on a case-by-case basis—as 'ministerial interference'. How extraordinary. Does this government have so little faith in its ministers that it refers to their actions as per their legislation as 'interference'? That is quite extraordinary, and I hope that the minister takes the speaker to task and says, 'I'm acting responsibly and according to my purview.'

We do not need to have an alternative, non-specified route into Australia for those claiming asylum, which will, I have no doubt, bring about more vexatious claims, particularly from those who are already residing in Australia who may have come in, for example, on a tourist visa or a student visa and then, at the end of their legitimate time in Australia, claim sanctuary. There is no doubt that this change, the complementary protection visa introduction, would give them a whole new avenue to explore and exploit to remain in Australia. We are also very concerned that this creates a whole new commercial product, a very profitable product, for the criminals we call people smugglers. We do not need that. We are already seeing problems in Australia of overcrowding in our detention centres. This government is trying to negotiate in the region to offload our responsibilities to other countries which are not signatories to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and whose human rights records in relation to those in confinement or detention are sometimes questionable. So this is a very important debate to have, but it certainly should not lead to new legislation which puts in place another fast track into Australia without proper scrutiny and which gives comfort, as I say, and a whole new product to sell, to the smugglers.

The coalition has always supported the use of ministerial discretion for special cases on an as needs basis. We reject absolutely the government's proposal to add a whole new class of humanitarian visa for people who do not meet the United Nations criteria for assessment as a refugee. Of course, there are persons in circumstances that do not fit the refugee convention criteria who need our protection. In the past, ministers—certainly our coalition ministers, like former minister Mr Ruddock—have been more than willing to consider these special circumstances case by case, and people have been given protection and access to permanent residence in Australia via a special admittance. For example, there are women who are fearful, if they return to their home country, of so-called honour killings or who might be subjected to female genital mutilation. Those types of cruelties and assaults on individuals are not covered under the refugee convention, but we certainly see that women who might be subjected to those cruelties should be protected in Australia, and under the coalition our minister of the day made sure that women in particular with those sorts of problems were given security in Australia.

On the question of how many ministerial interventions were made and how many protection visas were granted, between 2000 and 2003 there were 165 protection visas granted. From our taking office in 1996 to the end of 2002, the coalition minister used his discretionary powers on 1,916 occasions. On 1,045 occasions he used his power under section 417 to substitute a more favourable decision for that of the Refugee Review Tribunal, and in 516 cases he used it under section 351 to substitute a more favourable decision than the Migration Review Tribunal had delivered. This number is significantly greater than the number of times the discretionary power was used by former ministers—for example, by the Labor minister the Hon. Gerry Hand. From 1990 to 1993 he used his discretion on 81 occasions.

The Hon. Senator Nick Bolkus from 1993 to 1996 used his ministerial discretion 311 times. So certainly there was less action and activity from Labor ministers during their terms as immigration portfolio ministers, and under the coalition there was absolutely no difficulty in our minister—in particular our minister Philip Ruddock, our longest-serving minister—taking each case, looking at the criteria of other conventions that we are signatory to, looking at the criteria of the United Nations convention on refugees and making determinations, using his own assessment of the need with departmental advice and advocacy. There was no problem at all in him making sure that these individuals were given special attention and the security of a future life in Australia. I have to say that Senator Chris Evans, the previous minister for immigration, had become very reluctant to use the interventionary powers. In fact, he often stated that he felt uncomfortable doing it. However, the six-monthly tabling statements and accompanying information—of February 2008—from the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, on the use of the intervention powers under section 417 of the Migration Act shows that there were some 1,201 discretionary interventionary actions taken. So the Labor government is not unused to using ministerial discretion and I am sure it uses it appropriately. I have not heard too many people complaining about the use of discretion.

Australia is renowned for the care we take of our refugees once they are settled in Australia. At the moment we have some concerns about the number who are coming in our back door via the smugglers. The coalition has offered to help the Labor government to sort out their policies so that they could in fact return to the shutting down in Australia of the business of people-smuggling. I hope they do take up that offer of our bipartisan collegiate support because Australians do not want to see the queue jumping that occurs and the abuse of our good nature as Australians that occurs every time someone has the means to pay smugglers to take them via second, third and sometimes fourth countries to arrive at Christmas Island, or nearby.

I said that there are queues. On a recent debate on Q&A on the ABC it was loudly and strongly declared that there were no such things as queues for entry to Australia via humanitarian or refugee visas. In fact, we do set a cap on how many people we can appropriately and comfortably invite into Australia from the refugee hell holes and camps in places like the Thai-Burma border or in different parts of Africa. We need to have an idea about how many people will be selected, via the UNHCR's support, to come into Australia to be settled through what I call the 'legitimate' process. When we were in government those numbers were hovering around 13,500 people a year.

Every time someone arrives who has been able to pay their way into the country via the people smugglers, refugee families in my electorate, for example, sigh and despair knowing it will take so much longer for their family reunions to take place. They despair that the energies and attentions of the departmental officials, which should be directed towards finding their sons and daughters left in the camps in Kenya, are instead totally engaged in how they can best deal with those arriving boatload after boatload via the people smugglers. Yes, we do have queues in Australia and those queues become longer every time someone comes into the country who has not come via our selection process and at our invitation after having been identified in the camps and other places in the world where it is too difficult and dangerous for them to survive.

I am most concerned that this legislation does a number of things that will set us even further backwards in having a well managed, humane protection system and refugee settlement system in this country. I have already said that we have available ministerial discretion in the legislation, which means that every time there is a man, a woman or a child whose circumstances do not meet the refugee convention criteria the minister has the capacity to quickly and simply grant them visa protection on the basis of their need, and that has happened thousands of times over the recent years of both the Labor and coalition governments. So we do have an alternative that will not cause greater strife in our country in terms of longer queues and in terms of greater numbers of vexatious claims cluttering up our system. Sure, this is good for lawyers, but it is not good for the Australian community.

Also, we do not need to give a new product to the people smugglers to hawk to those who are waiting, whether it is in Pakistan, Indonesia or Malaysia, for an opportunity to get on a boat. Imagine the people smuggler saying to them, 'Look, we know you do not meet UNHCR criteria given your family background or in your personal circumstances, but, hey, there is a brand new type of product called a complementary protection visa that is now on offer in Australia. All you need to do is arrive, get on my boat and you will be right. You just have to make sure you have the US$15,000 or US$20,000 handy, and make sure you destroy your papers before you set off.'

This is not a sensible or humane way to go. We have a good system right now. It is a system that has been complimented as recently as yesterday by our visitor from the Human Rights Commission. Those who arrive in our country after having been selected by the UNHCR as the most in need deserve family reunions and I hate to see them having to wait years and years, perhaps to the point where their families have been lost altogether, because the queue-jumpers have an alternative way to enter this country. The energy taken to deal with those queue-jumpers and the vexatious claims is energy that should be spent in a more legitimate and humane way.