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Thursday, 18 June 2009
Page: 6509

Dr STONE (10:17 AM) —I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Protection of Identifying Information) Bill 2009. The objective of this bill is to better codify current departmental practice in relation to the protection and handling of personal identifiers. These are described in section 5A of the act and include fingerprints or hand prints, measurements of a person’s height and weight, a photograph or other image of a person’s face and shoulders, an audio or video recording of a person’s face, an iris scan, a person’s signature or certain other identifiers prescribed by the regulations. They do not include products such as DNA or blood.

The Migration Act currently provides for a strict regime for the collection, use, access and disclosure of personal identifiers collected under the act. Section 4A describes the department’s obligations in relation to the handling of this information and contains criminal penalties for any breaches. Amendments to the act in 2007 were important. For instance, if the department held a photograph of someone who had made a threat against an Australian high commission or embassy, those amendments allowed the department to provide that photograph to the Australian Federal Police. However, they also had the unintended consequence of the data not being strictly covered by the privacy provisions, as was originally intended. We are told that departmental legal advice has said that personal identifiers collected by other domestic or international agencies and unsolicited external sources and from law enforcement agencies were not fully protected by section 4A of the act. These amendments aim to ensure that they are. So we the coalition support them. The bill ensures that the rights and privacy of people whose personal identifiers are provided by international and external sources are protected under the act and assures our international partners that the data they provide will be given this protection.

It is also extremely important, of course, for individuals whose identifier information is collected. They want to be sure that there is not an extraordinary episode or incident where their photograph is taken to places where knowledge of their whereabouts would endanger them. So it is both for the protection of our own country’s knowledge of the person’s identity and for the individuals themselves that their identifiers are kept strictly private and used only for appropriate purposes. This bill further codifies the handling of personal identifier information and puts beyond doubt the protection of the information.

These amendments in themselves, therefore, are not very remarkable, but the context in which they are to operate remains one of the great challenges for any Australian parliament and for the nation itself. The collection of identifying information, as set out in the Migration Legislation Amendment (Identification and Authentication) Act 2004, was intended to strengthen the capacity of the Australian government and its agencies to ensure, for all passing across our borders, whether as visitors or temporary or permanent residents, that the Australian government could establish their identity and that there was no concern about the accuracy of the information obtained. Labor must realise the coalition’s position in relation to these matters is firmly embedded in our belief that our migration program is a nation-building program, that people who are newly arrived and perhaps susceptible to typecasting or stereotyping should be protected in their identity and not subject to questions about who they are or where they are from and that those people can settle quickly and easily into the broader community and, in time, enjoy the full opportunities that our great nation offers to all.

These are the values that the ALP supported as well at one time in the early nineties. Minister Gerry Hand, a scion of the Left, was a strong proponent of securing the integrity of Australia’s migration programs. The migration integrity measures that have been introduced by the coalition over time or championed by us over the last decade have been about ensuring that no-one in the community can doubt the integrity of our processes of identifying exactly who is coming into our country; what the purpose of their visit is; and whether or not they are suitable to remain in our country, potentially to become new Australian citizens. Everyone in the community needs confidence in that process. These amendments should help, we hope, to build confidence in the process of identifying individuals and giving them a chance to settle into our country with no long-term unresolved issues or concerns hanging over them about where they have come from and why they are here.

We very strongly believe that there should be proper investment in identifying technologies. There is a whole range of new ways, particularly more recently, in which biometrics can be used. It is also important that we have a strong database which is shared between agencies so that we are able to establish if someone has been to our country before and has been required to leave, for whatever reason. We need to be able to establish quickly, when someone arrives, if they are known to international agencies for any activities that we would not welcome in our country. So I urge the government to look at the latest technology in personal identifiers to ensure that we are not left behind in the business of establishing who someone is or whether they have already been dealt with by international agencies or other countries and there are concerns about their character.

We recently had the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s report No. 2 tabled. It looked at future options for additional community based detention alternatives. I did not support all of the recommendations as a member of that committee. The recommendations made in this report included that people be given access to the community before the government has fully completed its identification process. That may involve their security status, their identity or, indeed, even their health status. The recommendations of the report were that a person should be fast-tracked as quickly as possible into the community and be placed into a bridging visa framework where they could have work rights and support from Medicare and from Centrelink if required if they could not find work.

My concern in opposing those recommendations and writing a minority report was that it is far better for this government to put every effort into completing the process of identifying an asylum seeker, for example, and establishing if that person does in fact have a claim to full and adequate protection in our country, rather than fast-tracking them, half-processed, into the community, where they might languish for quite some time as this government deals with more and more arrivals coming via the people smugglers. My concern and the coalition’s concern is for resources to be put upfront into comprehensively and completely identifying an individual coming to our country without documentation, typically to seek asylum, and for that process to be completed as quickly as possible so as to make time in detention the absolute minimum required. That person could then be welcomed into our community as a refugee, or quickly required to exit the country if their claim has been false and they are not in fact a legitimate asylum seeker. That is why the identifier technologies are so important and the legislation dealing with the privacy and confidentiality of that information is so important. That is why we are supporting wholeheartedly this particular set of amendments.

I have to say that we in Australia have had some unfortunate episodes in our history of wrong identification. After the Second World War it was found that people had come to this country who were war criminals. They should never have been allowed to remain, or to have come in the first instance, but of course information flow and international cooperation on identification were different in those days. We need to make sure that our country, as far as possible, never gives sanction and protection to a person who should never expect to be welcomed into a freedom-loving place like Australia.

Recommendation 10 in the Joint Standing Committee on Migration report No. 2—the report I have just referred to—said in relation to bridging visa holders:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government reform the bridging visa framework to grant all adults on bridging visas permission to work, conditional on compliance with reporting requirements and attendance at review and court hearings.

I repeat: we would much rather see the efforts of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship put into completing identification and establishing a person’s right to asylum upfront, not having a halfway house, given that we heard a great deal of evidence about the problems of people without adequate English, without recent work experience and without qualifications that are acceptable in Australia trying to find work in the Australian community with limited support while they await a final outcome on their status being established as asylum seekers. We are concerned that this government has not put the effort that is needed into teaching English to these new arrivals and new settlers; in fact, the budget has been slashed for the Adult Migrant English Program. That is to be deplored. We are also concerned that there has not been appropriate support in the budget for accommodation for new settlers, particularly through the community care program. As a nation we should be fully responsible and caring about people who come to our shores seeking protection and a better life and who, under the UNHCR criteria, more than deserve that protection.

These amendments are welcomed by the opposition. We understand that they are important and necessary due to the unintended impacts of amendments that were made three or four years ago. It is of critical concern to individuals who are fearful for their lives and seeking to come to Australia that their personal information be kept strictly confidential. On the other hand, it is essential that overseas agencies have confidence in our system so that they supply all information we request with confidence and wholehearted cooperation, knowing that we have in place proper instruments of protection for that data.

We know that there were over 25,700,000 movements across our borders in the last financial year. That is an enormous number of individuals coming and going across our borders, both by sea and by air. That is to be applauded. Long may we see that movement of visitors, tourists, students, potential future settlers and spouses. We are proud and we should be proud of the fact that we have open borders and we are a welcoming nation. However, our capacity to correctly identify all of those individuals is absolutely necessary. It is a huge task. It requires the latest, best and most effective technology and it requires a department not too stressed in terms of its own staff numbers and financial resources; otherwise it cannot do a proper job. We are concerned that there is now a requirement for a contraction of nearly 800 Department of Immigration and Citizenship staff. There is also, of course, a huge contraction of the department’s budget itself. We are concerned that they are too hard pressed to do the job of processing these over 25 million movements which occurred in one financial year—that is the information that DIAC gave us in Senate estimates very recently.

The ALP had seven immigration ministers in their years in government and seven shadow ministers for immigration while in opposition. The Labor Party’s commitment to long-term engagement with the immigration portfolio is therefore somewhat of a rolling feast. We have to hope that, with the most recent turnover—with a new minister for home security and with the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, having the enormous task of leading the Senate—the Labor government does start to take the immigration portfolio seriously. It is to do with nation building. It is to do with the security of our nation. It is to do with ensuring a good quality of life for all of those who seek to live in our great nation. We are a nation of immigrants. In my own family two sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law are all immigrants. One is from a refugee background. I am proud of the way they have made extraordinary contributions to this nation as Australians in addition to the fact that they have provided me with eight grandchildren.

It was a concern when the former ALP president Barry Jones wondered out loud about Labor’s mismanagement of the migration program during its years in office before. He said that the focus of the Labor government was to build up a long-term political constituency rather than to be looking at the broader issues of continuing a fair and proper migration program which gave us one of the most multicultural, multiracial and tolerant societies on earth. It is a concern that the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services has already been found to have been directing grants from the migration portfolio budget to his electorate. The Auditor-General had words to say about that in a recent report.

When it comes to government, the coalition took decisive action to rebuild the national security of the country. It took decisive and firm but very fair approaches to make sure that we reinstated our migration program as objective and evenhanded. We also made extraordinary efforts to give temporary safe haven to those from East Timor and to those who were caught up in the Balkan wars. They were experiments, in a sense. These short-term safe haven visas had not been offered before. We learned from that experience.

However, we do have great concern, not having been given enough information, over exactly what this government intends with the introduction of what it calls a new complementary visa. We need to know exactly what is in mind. It is not good enough to have in front of the House, with just a few hours or less notice, the reading of a ministerial speech describing what that complementary visa status will mean to a person in Australia achieving that status. I ask that this government take the opposition more seriously by informing the opposition of exactly what it does intend if it is going to introduce another category of protection visa. It may be that this is a good move; it may be, though, that it is just another way to clog up the courts, the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Migration Review Tribunal with vexatious claims. No-one needs that.

It is of great concern to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship public service that there are over 900 cases outstanding in the courts at the moment to do with migration. It is amazing to see that Minister Evans has intervened in over 1,000 cases since he took office. In other words, he has overturned Refugee Review Tribunal and Migration Review Tribunal decisions in over 1,000 episodes. This is a rate never before seen with any minister for migration in an Australian government. We need to know this: has the minister lost faith in the workings and outcomes of the Migration Review Tribunal and the Refugee Review Tribunal? Of course, these overturns also include court decisions. These 1,000 overturns of decisions would seem—and we are still trying to get the full data as to how many cases were dealt with—to be running at 25 per cent of all the cases brought before the minister. Previous levels of overturns have been in the order of three to five per cent by ministers like Philip Ruddock and between two and three per cent by Robert Ray and other Labor ministers. So this 25 per cent rate of decisions being overturned does need very careful explanation and investigation. We in the opposition are attempting to unravel the mystery because there are very significant implications if the minister has lost faith in the working of the two tribunals.

It is very important that the minister’s use of his interventionary powers are transparent and accountable, given that in public statements the minister himself questioned the interventionary powers of the immigration minister—the powers which have gone with the minister since Labor introduced interventionary powers back in the early 1990s. We need to know about that because it goes to the heart of the integrity of our migration system, particularly in our asylum-seeker determinations. Our asylum-seeking processing must be fair and transparent and the minister of the day needs to be accountable. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, himself said that he wondered whether a minister could be fair in exercising his interventionary powers. So, when we discover this extraordinary rate of tribunal decisions being overturned, we are very curious about what is going on.

This brings me back to the bill. This is all part of having a migration policy and program which has integrity and the confidence of the nation. We are a nation of migration. All Australians—unless you are an Indigenous Australian—are from a migrant background. We have built the most stunning, tolerant, multicultural and multiracial nation. It had shaky beginnings, because Federation was very much founded on a White Australia policy. It was the Labor Party and trade unions who were most concerned at the turn of the 20th century about coloured labour lowering work conditions and pay. It was Robert Menzies who began the first unravelling of the White Australia policy, which culminated in Prime Minister Harold Holt dismantling the White Australia policy in 1966.

We are proud of the Liberal Party’s legacy of doing away with that racist policy, which was a shameful part of Australian history. I think of my Chinese-Australian son-in-law and that if he had been born in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s or 1950s he could not have lived in this great country and I could not have had my beautiful Eurasian grandchildren. We are an interesting country which other nations look upon with awe and respect. Our refugee policies and the resources that we put into new settlement are respected and applauded by other nations. Along with the USA and Canada, Australia does the most heavy lifting in permanently resettling those who are most in need of our protection as refugees—as identified by the UNHCR—from the hellholes of the world. We have 13½ thousand people to come to Australia under our humanitarian refugee program and I applaud Labor in continuing our commitment to putting special effort into settling refugees and humanitarian settlers.

My own electorate of Murray is the most multicultural and multiracial of any regional electorate in Australia. We have some of the biggest numbers of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, in our electorate. We welcome every one of those. We also welcome the first regional settlement pilot undertaken in Australia, where we took the newly arrived Congolese families straight from the airport to Shepparton to settle them into a community which had been preparing for their arrival for six months. That Congolese community is a stunning example of how Australia opens its arms to families, most of them with more than eight or nine children. Two days ago two individuals from that Congolese community attended Parliament House as part of the Fairley Leadership group. This is a community leadership program which selects from applicants those who are most interested and likely to become community leaders. Amongst them were two of our Congolese refugees who are taking community leadership positions in the Goulburn Valley communities. We had one of our refugees from the Congo stand for local government in the most recent Greater Shepparton City Council election. We have another of our Congolese men in the process of becoming a justice of the peace. For years these people had been in war zones in Africa and we can only imagine the difficulties and the suffering that the wars inflicted on them.

We are a great nation, but we have to make sure our systems have integrity and are properly resourced. We have to make sure that those in the public sector who administer our various programs have high morale and are committed to the work they do. They should not have to fear that the slashing of resources and contraction in numbers will make it impossible to do the task at hand. I commend this set of amendments. The coalition support the amendments because we do not want to see a single individual suffer as a result of their personal information falling into the wrong hands. We also do not want the processing of a person’s personal information so that they can be properly identified and their status properly established to take any longer than is necessary, because we are not properly using or protecting identifying information. We support this bill and I commend it to the House.