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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5048

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (17:02): I rise to voice my support for the Migration Amendment (Strengthening the Character Test and Other Provisions) Bill 2011. I voice the opinion of nearly every one of my constituents, I would suggest, when I affirm that the recent riots and disturbances at the immigration detention centres on Christmas Island and Villawood are completely unacceptable. Many Moreton constituents have taken the time to contact me and voice their concerns about this reprehensible behaviour. Not only did the riots cause extensive damage to buildings but this kind of irresponsible behaviour also put detention officers and fellow detainees in harm's way.

It is no secret that there are pressures on our detention system, and we are working hard to relieve that pressure by improving processing times for asylum claims and delivering a regional solution to irregular migration and people smuggling. All reasonable Australians know that we need to sort this out. On Friday I spent a day on the Joint Select Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy, where we saw the footage of that horrific boat accident to SIEV221. It is not something at all we want to be repeated. We know that anything that we can do to prevent such an accident from occurring again should be done.

The Gillard Labor government is committed to an orderly and compassionate immigration process and we will therefore not tolerate the kind of behaviour at Villawood and Christmas Island that many Australians saw on their television screens. That is why this bill introduces tough consequences for criminal behaviour in immigration detention that enhance the current ability for the minister to consider the past and present general conduct and character considerations that still apply—I point this out in reference to some of the mistaken comments made by the member for Cook.

The bill ensures that anyone who commits a criminal offence while in immigration detention will fail the character test, thus enabling the minister to refuse or cancel a visa on this basis. So these two aspects of the immigration legislation complement each other. It means that those who commit offences in detention may be denied the opportunity to apply for a permanent protection visa. This nation will neither embrace nor protect those who bite the nation's hand.

We are not talking about a return to the harsh temporary protection visas of the Howard years, despite the bleating of those opposite. Under that regime all asylum seekers, each and every one, who were found onshore to be refugees were denied a permanent visa. That resulted in a horrible status—eternal limbo. Having spoken to many refugees who went through that process, they called it soul destroying, because of the uncertainty of not knowing. People are able to wait five, 10, 15 or 20 years if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But the uncertainty that went with the temporary protection visas was soul destroying and horrible. They had no way forward and nothing to wait for, because they did not know whether they were going to be uprooted at any time. The other horrible characteristic was that the uncertainty meant the person had no opportunity to put their roots down in the community, to be a good citizen and to be ready to go once their status changed. By contrast, under the Gillard government system, claims for asylum will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

However, those who are involved in criminal acts in detention run the risk of being denied a permanent visa. This legislation sends a very strong and unambiguous message to those in Australian immigration detention centres that this kind of behaviour is completely unacceptable—dangerous, and therefore completely unacceptable. It will help to ensure good order in our detention centres and turn those responsible away from destructive and violent behaviour. As the law currently stands, the minister is only able to apply the character test if a visa holder or detainee receives 12 months imprisonment, or more, for an offence committed in immigration detention. This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 to allow the character test to be applied for any offence committed in immigration detention, or during an escape or after escaping, regardless of the actual sentence imposed by the courts. The changes in this bill will apply to these decisions from 26 April 2011 and will relate to offences committed before or after 26 April—that is, from the date of Minister Bowen's announcement. This applies to all people in immigration detention—onshore and offshore arrivals, asylum seekers or otherwise.

I know my electorate well, but the Australian community more broadly has expressed collective disgust at the riots and vandalism we have seen at Villawood and Christmas Island. These amendments will ensure that those who commit such offences in detention will not be rewarded. This bill also increases the maximum penalty which can be enforced for the manufacture, possession, use or distribution of weapons by immigration detainees from three years imprisonment to five. This measure will boost deterrence for the manufacture of weapons and help ensure greater safety for other detainees, detention centre staff and visitors.

When people who are close to staying in what many would see as the promised land are then given a decision by the immigration system that they are not able to stay in Australia, they can behave in a bizarre and irrational way. I understand that. I am a student of literature and it is like Gatsby's green light—the idea of something that is so close yet unable to be grasped. It can make you do bizarre and irrational things like sitting on roofs. I understand that. We have seen that ever since 21 August last year, when the Leader of the Opposition went so close to winning the election but missed out. His behaviour has been quite bizarre and irrational ever since then and it might even continue that way for the next 900 days.

Mr Robert: Mr Deputy Speaker, I draw your attention to standing order 90 on reflections on members and the imputation of improper motives. The member is making a direct reflection on the Leader of the Opposition . He should withdraw, and stick to the substance of the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): I would counsel the honourable member for Moreton to observe the standing order and be very careful that he does not reflect on the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr PERRETT: Mr Deputy Speaker, could you remind me of that rule again? I do not think I was doing that at all.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Standing order 90 says all implications of improper motives to a member and all personal reflections on other members should be considered highly disorderly. All I am saying is that all honourable members ought to observe that standing order.

Mr PERRETT: With respect, I did not impute any improper motive to the Leader of the Opposition at all.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The honourable member will resume his seat. I would ask the honourable member for Fadden to specifically point out the form of words used by the member for Moreton which he believes is outside standing order 90.

Mr Robert: It was in terms of flip-flopping around and getting so close and losing direction in terms of where he was going from thereon. It was a direct reflection.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: There is no point of order, but the honourable member for Moreton will observe all standing orders. I would encourage honourable members not to raise frivolous points of order.

Mr PERRETT: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was making the point that the next election is perhaps 900 days away and it would be strange to see such bizarre and irrational behaviour every single day for the next 900 days.

This bill builds on the government's strong measures to ensure this nation has an orderly immigration system. We understand that those who risk their lives on the high seas to seek asylum in Australia are genuinely desperate people. That is why the Gillard government seeks to treat these asylum seekers with dignity and respect. It is also why we are working with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea to break the people smugglers' business model and deter people from taking that dangerous journey. Looking at the footage of SIEV221, it is quite horrendous to see the decisions people make when their circumstances are such that they will risk everything to have an opportunity in a wonderful country like Australia. Our momentous arrangement with Malaysia means there is no guarantee that any asylum seekers arriving by boat will be processed and resettled in Australia. This will break the people smugglers' business model, and should save lives. Negotiations with Malaysia are continuing, but already the Malaysian government has agreed to treat asylum seekers in accordance with agreed human rights standards. Importantly, Malaysia has also agreed not to send any genuine refugees back to face persecution in their country of origin. That is our obligation under the refugee convention and that is Malaysia's commitment under this bilateral agreement.

Obviously there is no quick fix; three word slogans are not the answer; there is no simple solution. Resettling refugees is a massive worldwide challenge that demands Australia play its part, and I am proud to say that we have done a bit over the years. At the end of 2009 there were an estimated 43.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, including 15.2 million refugees, 983,000 asylum seekers and 27.1 million internally displaced persons—that is more than the population of Australia.

As long as conflicts continue around the world and various countries go through political or military upheaval, we will unfortunately continue to see refugees crying out for help. That is a reality that those opposite and those on this side of the House both know. When there is war the normal process is for families to flee from it. That is what people do to protect their children and give them an opportunity. That is why an Arab spring here means a winter of despair there; that is why a freedom fighter's advance here means a family fleeing there. That is the reality of war and it is the same as it has always been. That is why the Prime Minister's announcement to increase our refugee intake as part of the agreement with Malaysia is such an important step forward in our kind and practical response to the international refugee crisis.

When our foreign minister and immigration minister talk to ministers from Italy and other countries in Europe, they say that on any one day there can be more people arriving on Italy's shores than arrive in Australia in a whole year. Nevertheless, it is an immutable tenet of respective Australian governments that we must have secure borders—whether it be putting cannons at Sydney Heads to keep the Russians out or our White Australia policy or all of those various things that we have done in our history: Australians are obsessed with this notion. However, the reality is we only have around 22 million people here. When you look out beyond our northern beaches, we have 11 per cent of the globe to patrol. Even if we had all 22 million people out there in dinghies, we would not be able to defend the borders.

I thank the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship for introducing this bill and welcome the measures to deter criminal and violent behaviour in our immigration detention centres. I commend the bill to the House.