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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20701

Mrs HULL (8:17 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Migration Agents Integrity Measures) Bill 2003. As I am sure many members of the House are aware, I represent a very diverse electorate which boasts the multicultural communities of Griffith, Leeton and other areas and takes in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. The city of Griffith alone is home to people of 140 nationalities. The MIA was developed by migrants, and the region is recognised as one of this nation's greatest success stories. These migrants and their families, mainly of Italian descent, worked to establish the food bowl of the nation. Immigration is an extremely important issue for my electorate, part-icularly for the communities of Griffith and Leeton. Because it is so important, I run a second office in Griffith that deals primarily with immigration inquiries. The Riverina is also home to a Charles Sturt University campus that attracts large numbers of students from Asia. It is for all these reasons that I have become deeply involved in immigration issues and that I constantly seek ways to assist the Riverina's multicultural communities.

Making application for a visa or for permanent residency, for an individual or for members of their families living in an overseas country, can be an extremely daunting process. Having limited English skills and little or basic knowledge of the system of government and the immigration process can make the task even more difficult. In many instances, applicants enlist the assistance of a migration agent to help them fill out forms, answer questions and generally steer them through this process. Just as a solicitor or an accountant steers clients through the legal and financial systems, the expert migration agents understand their specialty as well. Like solicitors and accountants, migration agents charge for the service they provide.

However, difficulties arise with some of the unscrupulous agents that, unfortunately, we have in this country. There was a review of the statutory self-regulation of the migration advice industry which concluded that the migration advice industry was not yet ready to move towards full self-regulation. The review also made a number of recommendations that will strengthen this industry. The amendments will ensure that the Migration Agents Registration Authority, MARA, has adequate powers to protect consumers and that migration agents operate ethically, professionally and competently when assisting people who want to visit or migrate to Australia.

The issue of immigration can be very emotional and very distressing for some people. Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous operators who abuse the desperation of applicants, and of those seeking to reunite with their loved ones, to take advantage of people, many of whom speak limited English. In my electorate, people coming through my door indicate that they have paid an enormous amount of money to a migration agent and that the agent can no longer be found, has not provided them with a service, or that papers were sent to an address that was certainly not the residence of the person who was seeking to migrate to Australia. The complaints are long and varied but they all revolve around money—and copious quantities of it. Too many times I have seen such people come through my office door, particularly in Griffith where, as I said, I run a second office. I would say that 98 per cent of the matters dealt with by that office are to do with migration. Too many times, people who come in have lost so much money through dealing with an unscrupulous migration agent.

I recognise that there are agents who do run a very good and commendable service. But there are those who really illustrate the reasons why migration agents still need to come under some regulation. These agents illustrate the need for amendments to clarify and strengthen the requirements for registration as a migration agent; strengthen the offence provisions against providing unregistered immigration assistance; clarify and strengthen the powers of the Migration Agents Registration Authority and DIMIA to investigate complaints against registered agents and allegations of unregistered practice; provide MARA with new powers to sanction migration agents, particularly those who lodge a high number of vexatious, unfounded or incomplete applications; clarify and strengthen requirements for migration agents to produce documents and information to MARA; ensure that civil proceedings cannot be taken against people who refer information about unregistered or registered agents to DIMIA or MARA; facilitate the investigation of complaints by allowing information to be disclosed between MARA, DIMIA, the Migration Review Tribunal and the Refugee Review Tribunal; and clarify when details about disciplinary action taken against a migration agent or former agent may be disclosed.

Australia's migration advice industry was largely unregulated, as we all know, until 1992, when the Migration Agents Registration Scheme was introduced. In 1998, statutory self-regulation was introduced with the aim of preparing the industry for full self-regulation whilst continuing to maintain the consumer protection elements of the previous scheme. MARA's role includes assessing, approving or refusing new registrations and reregistrations, monitoring the conduct of registered agents, investigating complaints against registered agents and applying sanctions where appropriate.

MARA's role, quite rightly, is to regulate the industry and protect those who rely on its services. It protects vulnerable people who have a different culture and language, and a different understanding of the way in which government works in Australia as opposed to the way in which government works in other countries. Some places typically have a very corrupt system of immigration. Fortunately, Australia does not have that system of corruption. However, when people come to Australia, having come from a country where the system of vice and corruption is very profound, they think that the Australian system is the same. That is where you find that migration agents who are not reputable and who do not act responsibly are able to take advantage of people who are extremely vulnerable. MARA can regulate the industry and protect those who rely on agents' services. Without these services, you would find that many applicants would not be able to complete the forms required by the government or complete all the requirements they need to complete before an application is approved. It is very important that we have migration agents, but they must be registered and they must be trustworthy.

The 2001-02 review was the second review of MARA's role since 1998. It concluded that regulatory intervention was still necessary to address a number of concerns. These concerns included the quality of service being provided by some agents, the level of professionalism within the industry and the continuing vulnerability of some client groups. By keeping the migration agent industry regulated for a longer period of time, the government is able to ensure that the industry remains committed to both its clients and its crucial role in communities throughout Australia. Whilst the government recognises that many migration agents are professional and committed to providing the best level of service and advice to their clients, there are those in the industry, as I have indicated, who will continue to abuse their position of trust and fail to assist their vulnerable clients. This only adds to discontent and mistrust in the industry. By maintaining an external body to regulate the industry, we can work at improving this industry, ensuring better outcomes for its consumers.

The Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Amendment Bill 2003 amends the Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Act 1997, firstly, to enable MARA to charge agents for changing from non-commercial to commercial status. In the past, some migration agents have been able to avoid paying the higher commercial agent registration fee. By registering as a non-commercial agent but providing immigration assistance on a commercial basis during their 12-month registration period, agents can avoid the higher fee. To improve this situation, this bill will require these agents to pay a pro rata amount of the commercial application fee. It will also make provision for outlining when an agent starts to provide immigration assistance on a commercial basis.

At this stage, it is important that an external body can still keep a check on the actions and conduct of migration agents and provide an avenue of assistance to those with complaints about migration agents. Without regulation there will be no avenues for assistance for those who have not received an acceptable level of service. Regulation will continue to make the migration agent industry accountable to the consumer and the government. We need to ensure that the migration agent industry continues to provide the very best level of service to its customers.

Immigration continues to be an extremely important issue not only in my electorate of Riverina but also right across Australia. People will continue to apply for visas and such and they will continue to seek to reunite with their families here in Australia. So it is imperative that we have a migration agent industry that services its customers professionally and, indeed, ethically. It is crucial that migration agents have a valued reputation in assisting a range of applicants, many with complicated circumstances. Serious and complicated circumstances arise for families that need to be united or that, for some reason, need to leave their home country in order to obtain refuge. Enabling MARA to act against migration agents who lodge high numbers of unfounded or incomplete applications will only improve the integrity of our migration program.

The unethical practices of some agents have caused the government and the judicial review bodies substantial administrative and legal costs. These funds could certainly be better implemented in meeting the needs of and providing services for migrants. My electorate of Riverina and, I am sure, a great many others with a significant multicultural flavour will welcome this with open arms. They will be able to see that, in future, they will be able to trust the system. They will see that the government will ensure that, when they are dealing with an agent, they are dealing with somebody who is reputable and who is there to meet their needs and foster some really important initiatives for them in becoming an Australian citizen or, alternatively, in bringing somebody else here to become an Australian citizen. I commend the bills to the House.