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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7014

Ms PARKE (1:49 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009, which is the important first legislative step in the government’s much needed reform of immigration detention policy. It is another example of this government meeting its election commitments and of the positive reform agenda of the Rudd Labor government.

As the member for Fremantle, an electorate which is proof on both a historical and a contemporary basis of the contribution that migrants have made and are making to Australia, I can say that the immigration reforms being undertaken by this government represent one of its most welcomed policy initiatives. This government has as part of its mission statement and as part of its mandate the creation of a fairer, more humane and effective system of immigration assessment, processing and management, including immigration detention when such detention is necessary. I commend the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship for his work in advancing this important reform agenda.

To put it simply, this bill does away with what has proved to be the pointless, absurd and cruel practice of billing immigration detainees for the cost of their detention. Not only does it cease the practice of generating such liabilities but it extinguishes all existing liabilities under the detention debt regime. In doing so, it is to some degree only making real, in legislative and budgetary terms, what was already plain—the fact that more than 95 per cent of the bizarre notional debt being carried on the books from year to year as notional government revenue is irrecoverable.

While some of the provisions being repealed by this bill date back to amendments made to the Migration Act 1992—and I am prepared to say that they were ill-conceived at that time—the Kafkaesque potential of the provisions really only became manifest in combination with the former government’s appalling detention policies. Some of those early provisions were designed with the aim of recovering costs from illegal foreign fishers and from people smugglers. Indeed, that aspect of the Migration Act’s operation is being retained. Those who seek to gain financial benefit from illegal fishing and from the illegal people smuggling trade will continue to be subject to penalties and to liability for the related detention and transport costs. It is, and has been, entirely ludicrous to impose a liability on refugees and asylum seekers, especially when their detention, under the administration of the former government, has been so pernicious and, in many cases, wholly unnecessary.

Contrary to the assertions of the member for O’Connor just now, refugees are people who are perfectly entitled under the UN refugee convention, to which Australia is a party, to seek asylum in Australia and they should not be punished for the manner in which they arrive in Australia. This has been a case of asking the victims of the Howard government’s immigration detention nightmare to pay for their own punishment. Why was it done? It was done as a part of the political positioning of the Howard government on the issue of so-called ‘border control’; as part of the appeal to xenophobia; and as one of several high-pitched tunes to be played on the dog whistle, along with such Howard government favourites as ‘children overboard’, ‘the Pacific solution’ and ‘the Haneef affair’. But policy that produces absurd and perverse outcomes as a matter of its ordinary operation is bad policy.

So when you sight a debt notice from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, as it then was, addressed to a detainee who has been behind razor wire in the desert for four or five years, informing them that with their newly, belatedly, determined status as a legitimate visa holder comes a debt of more than $100,000—which they are welcome to repay in monthly instalments of some $300 for the next 30-odd years—you know that you have gone through the looking glass into a world of surreal, distorted, bureaucratic dysfunction. That is a world we are seeking to leave behind.

Those opposite who speak against this bill and against these amendments to the Migration Act—and I appreciate that there are some on the opposite side who are supportive of the bill, including the member for Kooyong, who earlier spoke so passionately and compassionately—should think carefully about what they are really arguing to retain. They are arguing for a cost-recovery program that levies costs against people who have been detained against their will—detained unnecessarily in many cases, and for too long, and on numerous occasions detained quite improperly, and detained in appalling conditions, with appalling results—and which fails to recover enough money to cover much more than the cost of the cost-recovery program itself. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration has noted that less than 2.5 per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 has been recovered. In fact, in its report of December 2008, the committee noted that:

The practice of applying detention charges would not appear to provide any substantial revenue or contribute in any way to offsetting the costs of the detention policy. Further, it is likely that the administrative costs outweigh or are approximately equal to debts recovered.

It is of course important to recognise—and, for those who argue against the bill, to consider—in this debate that no other country with immigration detention facilities holds people liable for their detention costs. For all the reasons I have mentioned, this government is rightly committed to returning Australia to a fairer, more humane, and more effective set of immigration policy settings. In doing so, it meets the recommendation made by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration in its report, which calls on the Australian government to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs as a matter of priority because of the punitive nature of the policy, because of the severe mental and emotional burden caused by the levelling of the debt and because the policy has in no way met the object of recovering funds for government. It follows the report, in 2006, of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, where it noted that:

The evidence clearly indicates that the imposition of detention costs is an extremely harsh policy and one that is likely to cause significant hardship to a large number of people. The imposition of a blanket policy without regard to individual circumstances is inherently unreasonable and may be so punitive in some cases as to effectively amount to a fine. The committee agrees that it is a serious injustice to charge people for the cost of detention.

But let me return to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s report and restate the three elements it identified as being the core rationale for amending the relevant provision of the Migration Act: first, that the current system of attributing a debt to immigration detainees is punitive in nature—that it is a punishment, rather than a genuine attempt, let alone a morally justifiable attempt, to recover costs; second, that the levelling of a debt on asylum seekers places an unconscionable mental and emotional burden on people who have already suffered, are already vulnerable and already struggle to participate in economic life; and, third, the fact that the practice of applying detention charges has not in fact offset the costs of detention.

I think it is fair to observe that this government’s emphasis, in its current reform of immigration policy, on appropriate risk management in combination with faster, more efficient status processing will ultimately deliver much greater cost savings than the misguided, ineffective and cruel system of applying detention charges to those who came legitimately to this country seeking refuge and who, in the large majority of cases, are ultimately found to have a legitimate basis for staying in Australia.

Putting the morality and the fiscal inefficacy of the detention debt provisions aside, this was also terrible policy in terms of the most important migration objective—that is, to give legitimate humanitarian refugees, as new Australians, the best chance of making a smooth and rapid transition to a healthy, happy and productive life in this country. It has long been recognised by many in the refugee support and advocacy community that there should be more funding for programs that assist migrants and refugees to make that transition. On that point, I was glad to announce last month that the Fremantle Multicultural Centre, which has made an enormous contribution to diversity, tolerance and social justice in the wider Fremantle community, would receive $267,000 as part of the government’s Settlement Grants Program, with an emphasis on assisting young refugees and migrants.

I want to conclude by quoting from the submission that the Edmund Rice Centre made to the immigration inquiry undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. That submission stated that asylum seekers:

… should not be burdened with debts: debts that they have little chance of paying without undergoing further severe hardship, debts which deny them access to other rights of participation and freedom of movement, debts which deny them any possibility of reuniting with their families.

I could not agree more. The detention debt regime, as part of the Howard government’s harsh and ineffective immigration policy, was the very antithesis of the fair go that Australia holds as one of its foundation principles. Today we take a step back into the light.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate interrupted.