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Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Page: 8393


Mr ZAPPIA (11:49 AM) —I too rise to speak in support of the Migration Amendment (Notification Review) Bill 2008, which I believe is an important step in the necessary and overdue reform of both Australia’s migration policies and the administration of those policies. I will just comment briefly on comments made by the member for Isaacs, who I believe spoke very well in support of the need for these changes, but, more importantly, spoke as someone with a great deal of experience as a legal practitioner and a Queen’s Counsel. It was reassuring to hear his comments in support of the legal changes that are required, as he put it, in order to bring about a sensible outcome in the application of our laws. I guess few people would know the court system better than the member for Isaacs. To get his endorsement and support for this bill, I think, says a lot for it.

As a country that was settled by Europeans just 220 years ago and that subsequently has become home for people from across the world, Australia’s migration policies have over the years been the subject of many public debates and policy changes. I have no doubt that we will see more of those changes in the future, as each generation adapts or responds to the circumstances of the era. I want to focus my comments on the present migration policies and practices, much of which are largely a product of the Howard government era. Again, can I endorse the comments of the member for Isaacs in his reflection on those policies, because it is my view, and a view that I believe is shared very widely across the community, that the policies adopted by the Howard government were inhumane, unjust and in urgent need of review.

In speaking on this bill, I particularly want to draw on my observations and my experience as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration—a committee I have been a member of since being elected to this place. Mr Deputy Speaker, as you may well know, the committee has been inquiring into issues relating to detention centres and to the detention of people. On that matter, I acknowledge and commend the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, for the welcome policies relating to detention which he outlined on 29 July. Under the new policies, detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest period practicable. Mandatory detention will remain in the following situations: for all unauthorised arrivals, for the management of health, identity and security risks to the community; for unlawful noncitizens who present unacceptable risks to the community; and for unlawful noncitizens who have repeatedly refused to comply with their visa conditions. I believe that most people in our community would agree that they are reasonable circumstances under which a person ought to be detained and that, bearing in mind that national security is of paramount importance to the government, those are reasonable conditions that ought to be applied in order to ensure national security.

As I said at the outset, Australia’s migration policies are in need of many overdue reforms, and this bill is an important step in that process. Certainly there is more to be done, but this is clearly a beginning and a very important step. As other speakers have said, the bill amends the Migration Act 1958 so as to clarify the way in which the Department of Immigration and Citizenship communicates with its clients. As the member for Reid, the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural and Settlement Services, said in introducing this bill to the House:

There have been a series of cases over the past several years where the courts have identified technical defects in notification that have created large legacy case loads which have proved difficult, if not impossible, to address through litigation or administrative reforms.

This bill amends the act to increase the certainty in the notification regime while still balancing that with the rights of noncitizens. The new notification regime is simpler, provides greater clarity and consistency and is sufficiently flexible to respond to individual circumstances. It also clarifies issues relating to notification for persons under the age of 18 years—and, again, the member for Isaacs made reference to that in his address.

The member for Isaacs also referred to the Ombudsman’s report, which I too want to refer to. The Ombudsman, in his report Notification of decisions and review rights for unsuccessful visa applicants of December 2007, drew attention to the difficulties with the notification provisions and the potential to result in the unlawful detention of clients. Clarification of the notification process will ultimately result in a reduction in public costs associated with detention, less time in detention and less trauma for those noncitizens and their families. From the public cost perspective, it will reduce the legal costs associated with technical appeals based on the notification process. Again, other speakers have given examples of where this has occurred.

Furthermore, it will reduce the time non-Australians are held in detention, which costs the Australian people in excess of $100 per day for each detainee. In 2006-07, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship raised debts of $28.9 million for the detention of unlawful noncitizens. The highest debt raised during that period was over $340,000 for one family. In one case reported to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration in the course of the inquiry, the cost was estimated at $512,000 for one person over a nine-year period. Even if these costs are not recovered, for those people who are ultimately granted permanent residency in this country, they have a debt hanging over their heads forever more, which in turn continues to cause stress and trauma to them. The total cost of operating Australia’s immigration detention system in 2006-07 was about $220 million. It is not a cheap exercise. And that amount certainly does not include the cost of the construction of these centres; it is simply the ongoing operational cost.

I would just make some additional comments in relation to costs. On estimates, we have in Australia at the moment about 50,000 people who are in this country unlawfully. For many of those people, at some point in time a notice of some kind will be issued to them. The issuing of those notices, if it is not clarified and if it is not simplified, will cause many, many more occasions where cases are taken to the court simply on the basis of the service of those notices. Right now there are about 1,000 cases before the courts—before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, before the Federal Magistrates Court and before the High Court. My understanding is that it costs Australian taxpayers about $10 million a year just to attend the court proceedings and pay for the costs associated with those court proceedings.

If we can simplify all of these processes, there will be a benefit to the Australian people and there will be a benefit to the detainees, who are obviously looking for an outcome as soon as possible. In addition to the costs, there is also the issue of wasting valuable court time. Wasting valuable court time may be the objective of some of the detainees and perhaps their legal representatives. But, for the others who are waiting in line to have their court case heard, it is simply adding to their trauma and the time that they are in detention—which in turn adds to the cost to the Australian people. So, for all of these reasons, this bill makes a lot of sense.

With respect to the people who are in detention and to their families, there are substantial additional benefits in having matters resolved as quickly as possible. There has been universal agreement amongst community interest groups and detainee support agencies who have had extensive experience of dealing with detainees that detention frequently leads to psychological problems for the detainee and that, the longer the person is detained, the more serious are those mental health problems. Mental health problems often leave a person with lifelong effects, with the person continuing to suffer even after being released.

Importantly, this bill will also have the positive effect of expediting the removal of persons who should be removed from Australia. Prompt removal of such people is one of the most effective deterrents to others who have no right to remain here. Again, this is not simply about assisting those who ultimately do stay in Australia; it is also about expediting the process in relation to those people who have no right to stay here and should be removed. It is a bill that some might describe as having a win-win objective.

Wrongful detention also raises a question relating to human rights obligations. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, speaking on 29 July in respect of the new policies he had announced, said:

On 14 occasions over the last decade, the United Nations Human Rights Committee made adverse findings against Australia in immigration detention cases, finding that the detention in those cases violated the prohibition on arbitrary detention in article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In addition, wrongful detention gives cause to compensation cases, as we saw with the Cornelia Rau case. On this matter, the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report identified that, between the years 2000 and 2006, 247 persons were found to have been wrongfully placed in detention centres. Clearly, the longer a person is held in detention, the higher will be the costs associated with any compensation if that person is ultimately found to have been wrongfully detained. Improving the determination process, which is exactly what this bill does, lessens any liability associated with wrongful detention, because the matters will be dealt with much more expeditiously.

It is my belief that, because of the Rudd government’s new detention policy recently announced by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, we are unlikely to see the types of wrongful detentions that were identified during the Howard government years and which the Ombudsman reported on.

In closing, I want to quote a couple of comments made by the minister when he announced the policy, because I think they sum up the direction in which immigration policies under this government are heading, a direction which the member for Isaacs quite rightly pointed out is much more humane and much fairer. The minister said:

In future the department will have to justify why a person should be detained. Once in detention a detainee’s case will be reviewed by a senior departmental official every three months to certify that the further detention of the individual is justified.

                …            …            …

Our new model will not solve all of the complex and protracted issues that delay resolution of immigration status. There will still be people in detention, but we should see fewer people in detention for less time. The section 501 character cancellation caseload represents a particularly difficult ongoing cohort. However, our new processes should ensure much better outcomes overall.

The cost of long-term detention and the case against the current system are compelling.

I believe the minister quite appropriately summed it up with those comments, and that is why he has introduced this bill as one of the steps that I am sure we will see in the months ahead for improving the immigration policies by this government—in this case improving the issues surrounding notification for people that are in detention centres. I commend the bill to the House.