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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 6994

Dr STONE (12:18 PM) —I rise to oppose the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. The policy of billing people for the cost of their detention was introduced in November 1992 by the then Labor government. Speaking during the introduction of the Migration Reform Bill in 1992, the then Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand, stated:

A primary objective of the Migration Act is to regulate, in the national interest, the entry and presence in Australia of persons who are not Australian citizens.

This very simple but important objective should guide all that we do in relation to changes to immigration policy, in particular when amendments are proposed that may further weaken this objective or put more border crossing decisions into the hands of international criminals.

The objective of this bill is to remove the liability for immigration detention debt and related costs for detainees and liable third parties and to extinguish all outstanding immigration detention debts other than those incurred by convicted illegal foreign fishers and people smugglers. Given the fact that detainees who make a successful bid to remain in Australia, and eligible third parties, very rarely pay any detention debt, virtually nothing, in effect, changes with the amendments introduced by this bill other than the principal itself. Right now, people who incur debt as asylum seekers are very rarely required to pay. In recognition of their means, less than 2.5 per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 has been recovered, with nearly 95 per cent of the debt waived or written off. It should also be noted that the latest statistics show nearly 80 per cent of detainees are in detention for less than three months, which would create debts of around $10,000, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars often referred to in discussing this amendment. Nonetheless, the coalition agrees that such comparatively smaller amounts should still be waived or written off if the asylum seeker cannot pay.

A recent report by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration recommended the abolition of detention charges. The committee has also called for the release of detainees into the community before the processing of their identity, health and security status has been completed. It would mean even less time in detention for all if this very unwise recommendation were adopted by the Rudd government. I repeat that the coalition fully supports the waiving of detention debts and write-offs for asylum seekers found to be refugees and who are unable to pay. If, as the government argues, there is a problem with record keeping and the administration of the debt recovery or write-off programs then this government should improve that administration, not abolish the program that, I argue, serves a very important purpose. It would be an extraordinary precedent for any government if an important program were removed simply because it was maladministered.

There is no doubt that announcing to the region that this Rudd Labor regime is abolishing the 17-year-old policy of recovering detention debt would bring great joy to the people smugglers who are once again very active in our waters. Just yesterday we saw the arrival of the 22nd boat—and there have been over 800 unauthorised arrivals—since the softening of policy in August 2008. Abolishing the detention debt principle is going to remove one more deterrent in the way of people smugglers arguing now that Australia has a wide-open backdoor.

Members need to be reminded that ALP minister Gerry Hand introduced the measure to recover detention debts 17 years ago, for this program to be a deterrent. At the time, Australia was experiencing an early surge in unauthorised boat arrivals. The government of the day, the ALP, introduced a range of amendments to the Migration Act to try to restore order and to save lives. Measures included mandatory detention, the establishment of the migration and refugee review tribunals, time limits on the lodgement of applications for asylum and also this detention charge we are discussing today. In his second reading speech Gerry Hand said:

In spite of the 1989 reforms, a major issue confronting the government is border control. There are people who are intent on bypassing the established categories of entry into this country. Some do this by trying to avoid immigration processing altogether by arriving in Australia without authority. The boat people are a good example. Owing to weaknesses which have been inherent in our migration laws for many years, these people are often successful. Many manage to stay here, even though they do not fall within the specific visa categories, which is the only lawful way to enter and stay in Australia. At the very least, many manage to delay the substantive decision on their case and, as a consequence, their departure, by using the courts to exploit any weaknesses they can find in our immigration law. This must stop.

Those were the words of Gerry Hand, a Labor minister who knew all too well that the cost of compromising the integrity of the migration and humanitarian programs for our nation was a loss of our capacity to help those suffering in refugee camps around the world, people who would never have the cash or contacts to engage the people smugglers. Without good regional engagement and a properly managed migration and humanitarian program, we cannot afford to offer safe haven to those most in need—people, for example, like those who are coming out of Africa, the Thailand border regions and the Bangladeshi border regions.

Writing most recently in theAustralian on 26 May, another former ALP minister for immigration, Barry Cohen, pondered Australia’s response to people like his ancestors, the European Jewry, fleeing after World War II. He said:

How many should Australia have taken: 30,000, 300,000, three million? There was always going to be a limit that would be too many for some, too little for others. Which brings us to the present debate in Australia about refugees, illegals, asylum seekers; call them what you will. It’s still a matter of numbers.

Labor minister Gerry Hand also identified the problem that a surge of unauthorised arrivals posed for Australia’s capacity to offer new settlers comprehensive support for some of the world’s most desperate refugees. He was also, of course, concerned about our orderly migration program.

The Hon. Julia Gillard was once similarly convinced about the need for a strong migration policy with integrity, but of course she has since been silenced. In 2004 Julia Gillard, the now Deputy Prime Minister—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Order! The honourable member for Murray ought to refer to the Deputy Prime Minister by her title.

Dr STONE —I am doing that, as I will explain. In 2004, Julia Gillard, the now Deputy Prime Minister, was shadow minister for immigration. She wrote the ALP policy for border protection, and her principles and views echoed those of her previous immigration ministers and the coalition. There was no ALP immigration policy, of course, to speak of in 2007, when Tony Burke was shadow minister, immediately before the election. We are told he was asked to bury migration policy or, at the very least, to make it a very small target. Julia Gillard, the deputy leader, wrote into her 2004 immigration policy the following:

… the continuation of temporary protection visas; continuation of mandatory detention; the introduction of a US style coastguard; increased penalties for people smuggling, including 20-year jail terms, $1 million fines and confiscation of boats; streamlining of the Australian processing regime to make it the same as that applying in refugee camps, to help remove the motivation for asylum seekers to risk their lives journeying to Australia in leaky boats; limiting the appeal on a decision to refuse protection to only one appeal by leave on points of law; asylum seekers found not to be refugees to be quickly sent home; and manifestly unfounded claims to be fast-tracked and resolved within a week.

Notably, none of these measures have been adopted or even talked about since the Rudd government was elected. In November 2007, instead, we saw a reversal of these strong types of principles. The Gillard policy proposals mirrored the coalition policies of the days when we had recently experienced the surge in people smuggling in 1999-2000. The coalition policies were hugely successful in stemming the 1999 surges in people smugglers, saving countless lives. Within 18 months of those new policies, introduced in late 1999, we saw people smugglers out of business. Of course Julia Gillard, now deputy leader of Labor, had closely observed that. Under the Rudd-Evans regime Labor has softened policy, with the tragic consequence of a flotilla of unseaworthy boats once again pushing off from our northern neighbours’ shores and people being burned, drowned and maimed. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard must be appalled at this amendment now before us and at the continued unravelling of both Labor and coalition policy that put previous governments in the driving seat in relation to who enters this country and who has the right to remain.

Of course, this is a government of many firsts. The Rudd Labor government is the first in Australian history to borrow and spend at rates that will see us paying back the debt for the next 20 to 30 years. It has even outborrowed Prime Minister Whitlam. This is also the first Australian government since Federation not to acknowledge the importance of maintaining border protection and the integrity and orderly management of our migration program, because no country can afford an open-door policy. Ex-Labor minister Barry Cohen wrote in the previously quoted opinion piece from just the other day about the reaction to John Howard’s statement: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come.’ He said:

For the chattering classes this was final proof that Howard was a racist. What they overlooked was that his words could have been used by every PM from Edmund Barton to Kevin Rudd.

…            …            …

Howard could have chosen his words more carefully but he merely reiterated the policy of his predecessors. No Australian government, and for that matter, no government in the world has an “open-door” policy.

The weakening of immigration policy by this government has stimulated the biggest surge in people smuggling since 2001-02, when the coalition’s strengthened strategy put people smugglers out of business within 18 months. You have to wonder if this Australian government is also the first to imagine that an open-door policy will deliver safety to fellow human beings. The detention debt policy—that is, the one we are discussing today—was introduced 17 years ago to assist in the proper management of Australia’s borders and migration programs, to act as a deterrent to those entering the country unlawfully as illegal fishers or people smugglers or those with vexatious claims for protection. It was to help ensure Australians did not pay for the detention of people with no real claim on their protection or their hard-earned tax dollars.

Right now, people smugglers are telling their customers that the Rudd Labor government has reopened the back door to Australia—with the 22nd boat since August 2008 arriving yesterday. When the policy softening was first announced there had been virtually no boats for several years. We have had over 800 people on these 22 boats since August and another 1,000 people have been intercepted on our behalf by the Indonesians, although they are not quite sure of the numbers because, tragically, bodies are rolling up on the beaches after failed attempts at people smuggling. Now is not the time to give people smugglers another boost, another angle, to sell their dangerous passages to and through the back door into Australia. There are stories circulating that people smugglers are offering passage to Christmas Island on a down payment, with the outstanding moneys to be paid over time once the asylum seeker is processed into Australia and has access to work or our welfare system. This business evolves then from people smuggling to the even more evil crime of people trafficking, with individuals and families pursued for payback for years. It is a brutal business, and we should not for a minute imagine that the people smugglers have any interest—other than for profit—in the welfare of their clients.

Why would anyone support removal of any deterrent? Why would anyone seek to improve the returns to those who traffic humans, to those who, as I said, have no regard for the safety of their clients and who have already been responsible for countless lives lost when boats were so unseaworthy they could not even get beyond Indonesian waters? There is no doubt that the smugglers monitor every move the Rudd government and others make. A recent article reported the story of Mr Mandalavi, a recent asylum seeker who also used people smugglers for passage into Australia in 2002. The article said that, after the Rudd government scrapped TPVs, a people smuggler ‘mafia man’ persuaded him to set sail. Mr Mandalavi said:

He told me the laws had been changed in Australia, and that Mr Rudd wanted refugees.

Well, we all want to help refugees. One of my sons-in-law was a refugee. He, like many Australians, came to our shores because his family was processed by the UNHCR and he was invited to settle in a new country, where we supported him through English language programs, job-seeking support and accommodation. We have an enormously proud record and have had a very generous intake of offshore-sourced refugees—out of the hellholes of war-torn places. However, we know people smugglers do not care about the safety of their asylum seeker customers. They are motivated solely by profit. Too many lives have been lost and too many have been terribly injured. The criminals who smuggle people must not be given further incentives to offer to their clients. They must not be given further comfort in their extraordinary efforts to entice more to get on board. Per capita Australia has the third-biggest refugee resettlement program in the world, after the USA and Canada. This year we will resettle 13,750 out of the world’s hellholes. Six thousand of these will be refugees who have been judged by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be in the most urgent need of resettlement. None of these 13,750 people could afford to pay people smugglers to deliver them to Australia. We in the coalition argue that those who cannot afford to pay, who have not got the criminal contacts, should not be dropped to the back of the queue.

There are 15.2 million refugees who the UNHCR has determined are in urgent need of a resettlement place. We must listen to their advice. The coalition are determined to help preserve the integrity of our migration and refugee programs, so we will not support any changes in policy that actively encourage the business of the barbaric people-smuggling trade. The Rudd Labor government, on the other hand, has unravelled measures designed to keep our refugee intake focused on those most in need. We cannot have an open-door policy. We do not have a limitless set of resources. With this government’s rising debt levels, our ability and capacity to settle more—appropriately—is contracting over time. We believe that the best interest of Australia and Australians is to settle those most in need of our support and to do that comprehensively and in a way that gives those new settlers the best chance of work and freedom and to live with fellow Australians in peace and security.

People smugglers are hooked to the internet and follow closely all of the moves and shifts in Rudd government policy, and they are declaring that it is a softening and a new back door. Abolishing the in-principle payment of the costs of detention is a measure that, along with abolishing temporary protection visas, abolishing the 45-day rule, which says that you should seek asylum within 45 days of arriving in this country, introducing another protection visa category for those who do not at the moment comply with UNHCR categories, gives comfort to the people smugglers, who are offering their passages to people desperate to have a new life in Australia.

We can understand their interest in a new life in our great country. We have to say, though, that there are ministerial intervention discretions. The minister right now can overlook when someone has taken more than 45 days to claim asylum in this country, so there is not a problem with the 45-day rule, which was introduced to make sure that the system was not abused. You can imagine the circumstance of an international student who has been in Australia for, perhaps, two or three years. They have completed their course and they wish to stay even longer to do some work and to send more funds back home, perhaps. They understand that if they apply for asylum, even though they have been for many years in Australia, their application will be duly processed and that, while the application is in process, they may continue to work. This is an outright invitation to a plethora of vexatious claims, clogging up the work of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, which is, of course, already battling under the constraints of a reduced budget and some 900 fewer officials.

The minister also has discretion to give protection to someone whose plight is so bad but whose conditions do not fit exactly within those that the UNHCR describes or within other treaties that Australia is a signatory to. This minister is not shy about using his intervention powers. We have recently discovered that he is in fact the all-time champion of use of intervention powers as a minister for immigration in this country. He has in fact overturned some 1,000 decisions made by the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Migration Review Tribunal and the courts. Over 1,000 cases brought to this minister have been overturned by him, so he has no hesitation at all in using the intervention powers that the Migration Act gives to him. So why would we invite more vexatious claims for protection in this country, all the time distracting the work and diverting resources from those most in need—those in hellholes in Africa, Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh? This is not a humane way to conduct a migration or indeed humanitarian refugee policy. Certainly this amendment before us today is along the same lines of distraction and unnecessary softening that just give comfort to people smugglers.

There are already safeguards in the legislation to ensure that asylum seekers who do not have the means to pay are given manageable repayment schedules or have their detention debts waived or written off. When I was parliamentary secretary for finance, I had these cases come before me regularly, looking for waiving or writing off payments, or indeed for ex-gratia payments, and I did not hesitate to move quickly to resolve those cases when there was clear evidence that the person needed to be freed from any debt in the process of re-settling or settling into our great country.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship advises that detention debt liability is written off for ex-detainees who have been granted humanitarian and refugee visas or for persons detained unlawfully. In fact, less than 2.5 per cent of detention debt has been invoiced and recovered. So this is not an issue of refugees now in our community walking around with multi-thousands of dollars in debt burdening them, destroying their chances of settling properly and peacefully into this country. That is a furphy. However, it is wrong to equate the failure to collect the debt with a failure of the measure. It was never intended or seen as a revenue raiser for any government before. It is a deterrent and a principle that says that the Australian taxpayer should not have to pay for the detention of people such as illegal fishers, asylum seekers who are found not to have a call on this government for protection or indeed people smugglers themselves.

Clearly, it goes without saying that administrative arrangements do need to be improved if they are found to be wanting. If it costs more to collect some of this debt than the debt itself, then quite clearly the department of immigration should get its act together. But the principle should not be thrown out the door because the administration of that principle is wanting.

So the coalition opposes the Rudd Labor government’s decision to abolish all detention debts. At this time of surging illegal boat arrivals we believe that all government policies must send a clear and unambiguous message that people-smuggling will not be tolerated in Australia, nor will people-trafficking. The integrity of our migration and humanitarian programs must be a government priority. This is important for the purposes of human rights, for the rights of individuals who are suffering right now in camps and places where there is no hope of their ever raising cash or having contacts to buy their way out of these terrible and inhumane conditions.

In summary, the coalition considers there are safeguards already in the legislation to ensure that asylum seekers who do not have the means to pay can have their detention debts waived or written off, and over 95 per cent of asylum seekers with these debts find their debts waived or written off. We support the continuing collection of detention debts owed by convicted illegal foreign fishers and convicted people smugglers. I repeat that it is also very important to improve the administration of this detention debt policy if, as the government argues, it is seriously inefficient. However, I repeat: we cannot support the further watering down of border protection policies and the integrity of our humanitarian refugee programs. The illegal boat arrivals continue to surge in response to Mr Rudd’s new regime. We think that is a terrible thing.