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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20693

Ms ROXON (7:38 PM) —I too would like to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Migration Agents Integrity Measures) Bill 2003 and the Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Amendment Bill 2003. Labor welcome this overdue attempt to tighten up the standards of the migration advice industry. We do ask though why it is now that the government has suddenly decided to act. We know that there has been a debate in the community for a long time about the type of regulation that should cover migration agents and lawyers. In fact, it was the immediate past minister—if that is the correct terminology for former Immigration Minister Ruddock—who argued when he first took on this portfolio for getting rid of the regulatory controls that covered migration agents. We have not come full circle but we have come partway back around the circle because there has been a realisation that it is very important for us to properly regulate and control this industry in some way.

People in this House know that the migration advice industry, or the migration industry, is a seriously big industry in Australia now. I have no doubt that the vast majority of advisers and agents are good and capable, but we believe that there is still a serious and significant number who are dodgy in one way or another. We believe that the government has a clear responsibility to ensure that people who are using migration agents are protected from those who are the most shonky.

When I say that the advice industry or the migration industry is a big industry now, we are talking about serious amounts of money. The Senate inquiry that is currently looking at the use of ministerial discretion has had evidence from a number of agents who have put the costs of getting migration advice at various stages anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000 or even up to $50,000. Some issues may take a very small amount of time; others involve cases that might go through many court processes, and perhaps some of those upper amounts might be expected in those cases. Nevertheless, it is seriously worrying to Labor that, when you have such large amounts of money, when you have people who are desperate and very determined to be able to stay in Australia and when you have a minimal amount of regulation, it is quite a dangerous cocktail for some people who are determined to do the wrong thing and who take advantage of people who are seeking to have their claims processed to stay in Australia.

We welcome the reforms and we welcome the fact that the government recognises that this is a big issue but we think that it is only partial recognition of what needs to be done. Clearly it is a major step back from the arguments that were proposed and the system that was set up by the previous minister, Mr Ruddock. It is proof that the system that he had hoped would work does not, and that there need to be more steps and protections built into the system.

There is a significant problem with the way MARA operates and with the interaction between MARA and DIMIA, because MARA does not have as many powers as people might think it does. As the registration agent, and as it has responsibility for self-regulation, it does not have the extensive powers that many in the community might want it to have. At the same time, DIMIA, which is the department responsible for a number of other areas and particularly the control of unregistered migration agents or people who are providing migration advice but are not registered to do so, does not use its powers to enforce or regulate appropriately the activities of community representatives. I will go into that more in the future.

We are a bit concerned that these bills give more power to the department even though we have some doubts about whether the department is properly or actively using the powers that it currently has. As the primary decision maker on most migration matters, there is also an issue of conflict of interest, and we need to look closely at how we deal with those sorts of allegations. Is it going to be appropriate for DIMIA to be able to give or not give a tick or an okay to people who are going to provide advice when it has an interest in making a decision on the cases that are before it?

There are growing numbers of complaints about the activities of migration agents and lawyers. It is vital for customers that these dodgy practices are stamped out. It is also vital for those very professional agents, and it is in their interests, that they do not have their standards and profession brought into disrepute. So looking to regulate more and introducing some new offences could have a positive impact.

It is a desirable and necessary aim for us to deal with this serious problem of many people providing poor migration advice and perhaps being serial offenders in bringing vexatious claims, and certainly for us to deal with the potential exploitation of people who are in vulnerable and desperate circumstances. So Labor support this purpose—we think the aims of the bill before the House are good—but Labor do have concerns that some of the methods and procedures that are being proposed in this bill will not necessarily achieve this aim.

The government is revealing some strange priorities by having a particular focus on agents who bring vexatious claims, when clearly DIMIA has an interest of its own in preventing those claims being made. The nation has an interest in preventing those claims being made. But the government does not seem to have taken quite so an enthusiastic approach in the areas where Labor have persistently revealed that there are serious allegations of corruption in the process. I would like to spend some time dealing with that in my speech today.

My colleague the member for Reid is the shadow minister who has carriage of this bill. He has clearly set out Labor's position on the bill and the negotiations that we would like to have before this bill is debated in the other place. I support the comments that he has made and hope that the negotiations that will be held between the government and the Labor Party will result in some of the changes in the areas in which we have concerns.

The second reading amendment that has been moved by the member for Reid sets out clearly some of the issues that we are concerned about. In particular, I refer to paragraphs (2) and (3), where we express dismay that the government is not using this opportunity to address the questions that have been raised around the exercise of ministerial discretion. Whilst we think that measures tightening up the requirements for agents so that they demonstrate sound knowledge of the Migration Act and ensuring that they undertake ongoing professional development are very welcome, we are concerned that the small numbers of claims that might be involved in assessing whether people are actually displaying those professional standards and the low success rates might be used as indicators. We are particularly concerned about that when we look at some of the success rates that people have in other areas and see quite disparate results that do not seem to reflect in any way the sorts of standards that people might have in this area.

I want to recap in particular the cash for visas affair, because of the fact that the government has decided to implement this bill now, after recommendations that deal with some of these issues were made many years ago. It is good that it is going to take these steps, but it is just a little bit coincidental that it is only now, when the issues that Labor have been raising about the integrity of the system have really got some public interest, that the government wants to look like it is clamping down on these procedures. When it does that and then has a provision in the bill which says that we will make an exemption for unregistered agents or people who are not migration agents putting forward a case to the minister seeking his intervention and that as long as they are not getting any fee or reward they will not be covered by these new provisions, it seems to us that the clamping down is not actually occurring in the area where some of the most serious allegations of corruption have been made. So we do not really believe that the government can be given too much credit for deciding to pick up some recommendations that have been around for a long time which, whilst appropriate, do not necessarily deal with all of the issues that we would like them to deal with.

I will quickly touch on a couple of those issues. A new offence is going to be created for an agent failing to inform DIMIA of their involvement in a visa or review application. There is going to be an increase in the criminal penalty for giving immigration assistance whilst unregistered. That might be something that people feel would go to the sort of circumstance we have been dealing with with Karim Kisrwani, but I need to draw the House's attention to the fact that DIMIA is not currently prosecuting people under those provisions. In fact, we know from the Senate inquiry that many complaints have been made over several years about Mr Kisrwani and that the only thing DIMIA has done is counselled Mr Kisrwani.

Supposedly an investigation has been afoot, and we have found out through the process of the inquiry that at the same time Mr Kisrwani has actually taken the head of the DIMIA Parramatta office out to lunch. This is not the sort of thing that gives people confidence in the system if DIMIA is to have more power and is supposed to be the keeper of the integrity of the system. We really do need to deal with the fact that there is a perception of influence and favouritism and that that perception does not just relate to the former minister; it relates to the department as well.

Debating a bill like this raises very serious questions about how a system can be regulated appropriately, the sorts of interests that a department might have as the administrator of a whole system and the interest that it might have in actually regulating the system or excluding people from using the system. We think there are some serious matters that have to be dealt with here. We are particularly concerned about revelations, again in the Senate inquiry, about the relationship that some community members have not just with the minister but with the minister's office and the department. We think it is strange that the government wants to cloak this bill in the language of clamping down on dodgy practices but has got more than a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the role that some community members can play in accessing the minister, particularly on matters of ministerial intervention.

This is not a small issue. Paragraphs (2) and (3) of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Reid go to our concern that there are not actually sufficient checks and balances in place for the decision making process that the minister goes through. For the period that the minister was the minister for immigration he exercised his discretion nearly 2,000 times, which is at least once every single working day that he was the minister—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; every one of those days the minister said yes to granting a visa to someone who otherwise did not fit through the immigration system. Through the Senate committee, the process of question time and the media, we have seen that Mr Kisrwani—but others as well—have undue influence on the process. They have access that others do not have. They make donations to the Liberal Party and they can speak to the minister's office three or four times a week—and this is not regarded as an issue that the government want to regulate against in this bill. If they were taking seriously the complaints that were being made in the migration industry and the community, that would be one of the things that they would have addressed in this bill.

It is very important, because the minister's power to exercise his discretion to grant a visa is not compellable, reviewable or delegable. Also, it is exercised in secret. The departmental officials have appeared before the Senate inquiry and said, `We do all this work, these are the steps we go through and this is how we advise whether we think a claim is worth while or not, but then it goes to the minister and out come the results. We can't tell you anything; we're sorry about that.' The department says, `We can't tell you anything about how that decision is made, because it is purely a decision for the minister.'

That would be okay if we were confident that the minister had to use some particular process of reasoning, that he had to measure the claims against some sort of check list. But there is no such check list. In fact, we find the person who has the highest success rate with the minister is a travel agent from Western Sydney. He is not a registered migration agent and is only involved, it seems, at the stage of ministerial intervention and thus would not be covered by any of the provisions in this bill that are supposed to be tightening up a system that the government recognise does have some loopholes and some dodgy practices.

We have identified a major practice and put focus on it in a way which has moved the government to finally act in this area; but they have left out one of the most critical issues that they could have dealt with. We believe that this is a big issue and that the bill has missed an opportunity to bring some integrity into the system, particularly in the area of ministerial discretion. We are, as I say, talking about large numbers of people who are getting through the process. We are talking about no reasons being given. We have serious questions that have not been answered about whether or not influence is being brought to bear on the minister by friends, Liberal Party donors or other businesspeople.

It seems to us that the previous minister for immigration certainly liked to play God in this area. He certainly seemed happy to say to any individual applicant, `Yes, I'm going to grant yours; no, I'm not going to grant yours.' He was very happy and comfortable with the idea that he was the ultimate decision maker and, perhaps like God, did not have to give any reasons for those decisions. But we are concerned that it went a step beyond that. He was not just interested in playing God; it was more like he was playing the Godfather, going by some of the characters that he surrounded himself with. It seems that every corporate criminal in the country is somehow or other involved in immigration issues. Illegal immigrants turn up. There is the Philippines corporate fraudster Dante Tan. Jim Foo pops up. He was sent off and has now been taken into custody in Singapore. It is not just limited to these cases and those that the member for Reid flagged.

Mr Bob Robertson, a Liberal Party candidate, got particular assistance from the minister in getting his Iraqi father to Australia in a process that no other person was able to access—which was the minister's office personally telling the departmental post to ignore their normal check list. We have got this on email; it is not a wild allegation that I am making. This has been reported before and is publicly available information. Mr Robertson gets his father here, ahead of everybody else who has to wait in the queue. Then the expected happens. As the departmental post advise, an application was made for Mr Bob Robertson's father to stay here. He is here permanently. Since that time, Mr Robertson has been convicted of defrauding the Commonwealth of several million dollars—bizarrely enough, related to ethanol. Some of these things in the world connect to each other.

But it seems to us that there is more than a whiff of corruption in this immigration area. There are some very serious allegations. Some of the most serious allegations have come to light this week—the minister being aware of departmental officials being involved in passport fraud and in encouraging detainees to obtain and travel on false documents. We see the minister now happily scuttle off into another portfolio where he will have responsibility for making the decision about whether or not the Federal Police should investigate these matters. It just goes on and on. It is a web that gets very complicated, and it is one that we will pursue using every avenue. It does not matter to us what portfolio the minister is in. If something dodgy has happened that he has been involved in, that has come about as a result of donations to the Liberal Party, that has come about as a result of his negligence in pursuing matters when they have been raised with him or that has come about as a result of favouritism or friendships, we are going to pursue it.

We are very concerned that this legislation does not do a single thing to help deal with those sorts of allegations. If, as some of the members on the other side of the House who spoke previously said, this bill was really about putting integrity back into the system, we would see some of those matters being addressed in either of these two bills. We do not. And that is why we have moved a second reading amendment to flag our concern that these matters have not been properly pursued and followed up.

As I say, the measures that were presented here today in the two bills go some way towards tightening up parts of the industry. The member for Reid has flagged the areas of agreement and the areas where we hope to have further discussions with the government. But there is a big gap where some of the most serious allegations have been made. They relate to personal favours, to personal influence, to personal fundraising and to the minister's personal discretion and decisions to grant visas to nearly 2,000 people. Every working day that the minister was in power—be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday—he granted a visa to someone. We want to make sure that he granted visas to people who deserved them, not to people who just donated money to the Liberal Party or who were in some way friends and favourites of the minister.

This is a system of deregulation that the minister himself was involved in when the government came to power in 1996. We are not going to give the government too much credit or praise for now fixing up something that they clearly broke to start with. We want to help clamp down on those dodgy or shonky agents that are taking advantage of people in vulnerable circumstances, but we want to make sure that the balance is right. We want to make sure that there are checks on the department and on the minister in appropriate circumstances. We want to give MARA enough power to do its job properly. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Mrs Gallus) adjourned.