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Wednesday, 17 February 1999
Page: 3112

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) (1:10 PM) —in reply—I will try to contain myself in terms of the breadth of the issues I canvass, but I do want to thank the shadow minister and the members for Calwell, Batman, Moreton, Hinkler and Watson for their comments. I will pick up some of the comments of the member for Watson since he is kind enough to remain here. He is the only person who has spoken in this debate who is here and I think, on that basis, he deserves a response to the particular matters he has raised, more so because he was so generous in a personal way.

Your comments, coupled with those of your shadow minister, reveal the conundrum that we face. On the one hand, you were expressing the anxiety of families here who want to have family visitors and who are seeking to sponsor. On the other hand you are saying that I, as the minister, in relation to those people who have come and who seek to remain here and use every opportunity to remain here, ought also to give them work rights and provide additional incentives for some—and let me make the position clear, we are only ever talking about some—people who have ulterior motives.

When people live in countries with a relatively low standard of living—with much lower incomes than we have and few employment opportunities—one ought not be surprised if there are family members here, with relatives abroad, who might be desirous of family members being able to come here and even engage in employment for a time. One ought not be surprised; it happens.

So the conundrum is: how do we get the right balance? I do not want to discourage family migration. I do not wish to discourage people who are in bona fide relationships from being with their partners. I do not want to stop people who have settled in Australia and made Australia their home having their relatives and friends here for all their important occasions.

In relation to the member for Watson's comments, let me just say, dealing first with spouses, that there has been an effective reduction in the extent of manipulation. We have seen a fall off in application rates of something in the order of between 30 per cent and 40 per cent, and I suspect that that is a reflection of the fact that those people who were entering into non bona fide relationships are now not applying. I think that is the case.

It has meant that the extra staff we have put in to overseas posts to process spouse applications and to deal with enhanced bona fides are having an impact, and I am told that the delay for spouses has, on average, come down. It was nine months in 1997-98, and it was down to six months in the last half of last year.

Mr Leo McLeay —That does not take account of those cases where it is 12 to 18 months.

Mr RUDDOCK —It certainly does not take into account the fact that in high risk areas there might be, in some cases, longer delays. I am alarmed when you tell me that somebody has experienced a two-year delay. She must have had a child for over one year, unless she travelled backwards and forwards to get pregnant. But if she was pregnant when she left him and then came back here and sponsored him, I assume the child would have been one year and—

Mr Leo McLeay —I said that some people have waited for two years. This woman had a baby while she was waiting. She was not the two-year one.

Mr RUDDOCK —Okay, I was a bit troubled about that. I would be very concerned if there were two-year delays. There can be reasons for delay in particular cases. If there are no children involved, or if the party is not an Australian citizen and you have a big caseload, delay could occur. Sometimes it may be to do with health. For example, there may be some scars on the lungs when you do the X-rays and you have to look for tuberculosis. There are a whole lot of factors that can lead to delays. However, if you have major problems of that sort I would hope that you would continue to come to me because I am sure we could sort them out.

I want to spend a bit more time dealing with the entry of visitors. These matters are not new and they were the subject of a very comprehensive analysis by the Joint Committee on Migration. Your colleague Senator Jim McKiernan was the chair of that committee when it looked at the procedures that we put in place.

You must understand that my officers are working in an environment where they have to make lawful decisions. We have an act, we have regulations, and they have to apply those. My officers are very much aware that every decision is appealable. The way in which we function as a department today is extremely onerous for departmental officials, in terms of the comprehensiveness of the training and in the way in which they have to deal with these sorts of issues.

If people are making a family visit they are able to appeal those decisions. I know some people believe the fees are too high, but the fees are fixed on a cost recovery basis and the appeals can be taken. But—

Mr Leo McLeay interjecting

Mr RUDDOCK —That may be the case too, sometimes, but I will come to what I am going to offer in relation to that matter in a moment because the member for Calwell raised much the same issue when he spoke. He raised a concern about similar countries—Lebanon, China, Turkey and Vietnam. Essentially, if you look at the statistics that are available, these are all what we call high risk posts.

When the joint committee, which came to its task with an objective approach, was asked to look at this, it said in its conclusions at 7.69 and 7.70:

The Committee is of the view that it is essential to guard against abuses of the visitor program. To that end, the Committee supports the principle that where objective data demonstrates that certain classes of entrant present a higher overstay risk, such evidence should be used by DIEA in its decision making. In the Committee's view, it is appropriate that visitor applicants who exhibit high risk characteristics be requested, where appropriate, to produce cogent evidence to demonstrate that their intentions in visiting Australia are genuine.

In this context, the Committee supports the principle of the risk factor profile. The profile is a management device constructed from objective data which simply allows decision makers to highlight those visitor applicants who must show appropriate evidence of their intention to return home. The risk profile does not mandate refusal of the visa. While the visitor visa refusal rates from posts in certain risk factor countries are high, large numbers of visitor applicants at such posts are approved.

That is still the case. I would simply say to the honourable member, and he knows this, that I instruct my overseas posts to have regard to the points that are made by members of the community who have good reputations, by members of parliament who have important reputations and who are prepared to make the point that they are putting their credibility on the line when they say these people are most unlikely to breach visa requirements.

I do not want people to do it lightly. I want them to make some judgments in relation to these matters. We do undertake intelligence work to look at whose undertakings, when they have been given, have been found to be accepted and honoured, and those whose undertakings have been accepted and not honoured. They are factors that my officers have to undertake because I do recognise that if people have a good record, if they have been able to travel in and out of Australia and exhibit that, they ought to be able to demonstrate that. And, for those who have not been able to do it, we ought to establish circumstances where they can.

This is against the background of the major problems that we have had here in Australia with people who have given undertakings. I have had people offering undertakings when they themselves had come here as a visitor, overstayed, and eventually sought permanent residence, saying, `Believe me.' These are matters of concern.

The shadow minister has come in and I am glad to see him here. There have been some very useful contributions in this debate today. I think this is an area in which it is important that we are able to work constructively, and I want to reiterate that. I am willing to work constructively with the shadow minister, as I have with his predecessors, to sort out areas in which there can be disagreement from time to time.

The shadow minister today raised some issues which he had sought to get publicity for in the press associated with one of the Brisbane refugee support groups and their experience. I spoke to that group some time ago and I said that, if they had specific proposals that they wished to put to me which would enable me to be satisfied that I was not building up a cohort of people who were making work claims and then wanting to stay to pursue those work claims—in other words, we were looking at those people who had legitimate claims that ought to be pursued—I would like to see how they were proposing that I could separate the straw from the chaff. And they have not come back to me on that.

There is a campaign under way to try and get work rights for people who are further down the stream. The important thing to remember is that the provisions relating to work rights provide, and the opposition agreed to the original decision that was taken, that if people make their claims for protection visas in Australia within 45 days of arrival—in other words, if they have genuine claims and they come forward and make those claims within 45 days after arrival—they will be able to get permission to work for the time that the application is being considered. I must say that that applies after the six months, because they told us they had sufficient capital to look after themselves for six months when they arrived, so there is six months prohibition and they must make their claim within 45 days.

Once they make their claim they will get work rights while that claim is being considered by the department. They will get work rights while it goes to the Refugee Review Tribunal. But, when they go beyond that, the government's view is that the work rights itself had become a major incentive for people to make other claims of a questionable character. What was happening was that there was extensive advertising—and I now have a lot more evidence about what has been going on in my own profession—in all the ethnic papers to get people who are unlawful to come forward to join class actions and to then hang off that an application for work rights. One of the class actions had 2,900 people involved in it.

I have a copy of a letter from a very reputable solicitor, well known to us all, I am sure, outlining how not only did he get money in the first instance, which ran into many thousands of dollars from a group of clients, but how he is now going back and saying that if they want to continue he needs more money and indicating in that letter that there will be no accounting for the way in which the money is spent in relation to this claim.

I know the profession is worked up about this issue. I ask them to come forward, when I tell them of the problems, with constructive approaches to dealing with them. But the difficulty I have is that they do not come forward with positive and constructive approaches to work through some of these issues.

As for the work rights issue, we had a disallowance motion. A member adverted to that before. I have already arranged to introduce for 1 April some amendments to take account of issues that I was cognisant of where our broad brush approach may not have been appropriate for some extenuating circumstances. I am always prepared to look at extenuating circumstances, and I hold that offer out. But we do have a major problem, and that problem is going to grow. The problem is that there are more and more people who are seeking to access Australia and to make these sorts of claims.

I want to finish my remarks by commenting on the speech of the member for Batman. It was a very thoughtful speech—it dealt with population issues; it dealt with some principles in relation to the way in which immigration policy should be conducted. In relation to the way in which the program is being conducted, save on the question of population size and the size of the program, I would say that we would be very much ad idem in terms of the remarks he made. If he is speaking for the opposition on these matters, I regard that as a very positive and useful contribution, particularly in speaking about the need for skilled migrants and about that need having primacy: family reunion flows from skilled migrants and ought not to be seen as an end in itself. As to the comments that were made about broader population issues, I will leave it for my consultations which are under way at the moment for people to express views on that and I will have something to say on it later.

In conclusion, there was some reference made by the honourable member for Hinkler to the impact of visa fees on tourism. It is very important that people know that there is absolutely no evidence that the $50 visa application fee has caused any fall in the number of visitor visas issued in Australia during 1998. Of Australia's top 20 source countries for visitors, eight had fewer visas issued than in 1997. Of those eight countries, four—Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Sweden—were ETA countries; in other words, no fee was imposed. In those ETA countries there was a fall, in total, of 230,000. In the other four, where fees are imposed—the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand—there was a fall of only 84,000. It would defy my mind, no matter how nimble at times, to deduce from these figures that there has been any impact of the fee in terms of the reduction. The point I wish to make is that the visa fee has in no way affected the number of visitors coming to Australia as tourists; it has obviously been quite beneficial.

In summary, this bill will make some minor technical amendments to the Migration (Visa Application) Charge Act 1997—which is the one we are supposed to have been talking about. That act imposes a visa application charge in relation to visa applications and sets a ceiling for that charge. The ceiling may be indexed in accordance with the formula set out in the act. This bill ensures that the consumer price index figure used in that formula is the most current and correct for that purpose. I am glad to hear that the opposition has supported the amendments.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —If no member wishes to consider the bill in detail, I will put the report question forthwith. The question is that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Main Committee adjourned at 1.29 p.m.