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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5071


Mr BOWEN (McMahonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (18:43): I thank all honourable members who have contributed to this debate on the Migration Amendment (Strengthening the Character Test and Other Provisions) Bill 2011. This is an importance piece of legislation. The intent of this legislation is to make it crystal clear to people in immigration detention and the broader community that inappropriate behaviour in our detention centres is unacceptable. That means that anyone who is in an immigration detention centre who is convicted of any offence will know that they will fail the character test and enliven the minister's and the department's ability to refuse them a visa if they are convicted of an offence. That is important. I will respond to some of the points made by the opposition. I will do that by addressing a series of points made by the opposition. The opposition have flagged an amendment, which I will get to in a moment. They have also made a more general contribution. I will confine my comments to their contribution on this particular bill although obviously several honourable members opposite have taken the opportunity to comment more broadly. The opposition's position on this is that this legislation is not necessary and it does not go far enough. I am not sure how the opposition can close the ring on that argument. The shadow minister, who joins us in the chamber, has said on several occasions that he does not regard this legislation as necessary. Several of his colleagues have said that in the chamber tonight—nevertheless, they have said they will support it, which I welcome—and then they have said the legislation does not go far enough. I am not sure how you can argue that legislation that is not necessary does not go far enough. I have made the department's legal advisers available to the honourable member opposite. I understand they provided him with advice that shows why this legislation is necessary, which the honourable member is aware of—although he has not referred to it.

It is my view that this has been necessary for some time. Honourable members opposite have pointed out that there have been instances of people who have been convicted of offences whilst in immigration detention who have not then failed the character test. That is correct, and honourable members have referred to those instances. There have been others that honourable members opposite have not referred to. For example, in the 2002-03 Woomera and Baxter riots and escapes, in relation to Woomera 15 people were convicted of offences. Of those 15 people who were convicted of offences in relation to the Woomera riots and escapes, 12 got permanent visas and five were granted Australian citizenship. The honourable gentleman opposite and his colleagues complain here, and elsewhere in the broader debate, about this government not applying the character test. Previous ministers and governments found similar issues. Yes, I have taken the view that the character test does need to be strengthened. The honourable member has pointed out, correctly, that I said I would be applying the character test to people who participated in the events at Christmas Island and Villawood. Yes, I said that; of course I said that. It is not inconsistent of me to say also that I think the character test needs to be strengthened, and that is why this legislation has been introduced today.

The honourable member for Cook has criticised the government for our response to the Villawood protest. He said that we should have ignored the Australian Federal Police advice on how to handle that situation. He has criticised the government for having a senior departmental official explain to those people on the roof that they were not achieving anything and they should come down. I went back and looked at how previous governments might have handled these sorts of issues, because I thought: 'That's criticism which is aimed at the government.' I again had a look at the situation in relation to Woomera and I found a report from Saturday, 10 June 2000. It says:

Mr Ruddock said he had decided not to go to Woomera, despite demands from the boat people, because he did not feel it appropriate to go there under duress.

Fair enough, I say. The report goes on:

The secretary of the Immigration Department, Mr Bill Farmer, had been sent instead .

Previous ministers have sent the secretary for discussions with people who have been involved in protests and riots, and the honourable member opposite criticises the department and the government for having the deputy secretary say to people on the roof that they were achieving nothing and they should get down. The honourable member for Cook said in his contribution that life goes on. That was what he said. He said that for people who had been on the roof of Villawood life goes on and there are no consequences for the people involved. He ignored the fact that one of the people involved has been charged with very serious offences with a potential sentence of up to 12 years in prison. So his argument that life goes on is a little hard to manage.

I want to spend some time dealing with the opposition's amendment, which they have flagged for discussion. We will be opposing that amendment. The opposition have flagged an amendment which would amend section 501(7) so that people who are convicted of an offence with a custodial sentence would have the character test enlivened. To listen to the contribution of the shadow minister for immigration you would think that that would mean that anybody who is in Australia who is not a citizen who commits an offence in Australia could have their visa cancelled if they committed an offence which had a custodial sentence—and that would be true. What the shadow minister for immigration did not outline to the House is who else that would apply to. There are 4½ million permanent and temporary visa holders and applicants in Australia. The shadow minister's amendment would mean that, for example, somebody applying for a tourist visa to Australia who had been sentenced to a custodial sentence perhaps 40 years ago would fail the character test. For all the 4½ million people that this would apply to, it would mean that, for example, somebody who may have spent two weeks in prison 40 years ago would fail the character test. That would mean that every single tourist to Australia, regardless of visa type, would then have to be considered by the department in that light. I wonder whether the shadow minister for immigration has consulted with the shadow minister for tourism, who is at the table. I hope he has, because this will have a very significant impact on the tourist industry in Australia. I am surprised that a former head of Tourism Australia would move such an amendment as this. If they are concerned about processing times now, I would like to see the impact of their amendment on processing times, which will blow out.

Of course the government considered the type of amendment that the shadow minister has proposed tonight. We went through it. I did consider the position that this should apply more broadly and, when some of the implications of that were pointed out to me, I made the appropriate decision. I am not sure the shadow minister has thought this through. I think we see a bit of a thought bubble from the shadow minister. He would create a special class, because according to the shadow minister's amendment this would not apply to holders of ETA visas. So if you were to come from some countries you would be covered by this amendment; if you were to come from other countries you would not be covered, because ETAs would be under a separate regime. That was the advice to me from my department this evening.

I do not think the shadow minister for immigration has thought this through at all. It is appropriate that if you are in immigration detention you are very clear on your obligations, because offences in immigration detention, even offences which do not attract a penalty of 12 months or more, involve damage to Commonwealth property, risk to other detainees, risk to Commonwealth staff and risk to staff of service providers. They are serious offences, and it is appropriate that this parliament, this government, sends a clear message about that sort of behaviour. If the shadow minister for immigration sincerely believes that this amendment is feasible, then I would invite him to call a division. I would invite him to have the names recorded of honourable members who agree with him in this House and I would look forward to that division occurring. I am glad that he will be supporting the bill and I welcome that support and the support of the opposition, but I would also encourage them to reconsider the amendment they propose to move here tonight. I do not expect them to withdraw it from the House but I hope, after reflection, they do not move it in the other place. We will certainly be pointing out the inefficiencies and the shortcomings in the opposition's thought bubble on this approach.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Sidebottom ): The question is that the bill be now read a second time. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133(b) the division is deferred until 8 pm.

Debate adjourned.