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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7081

Mr RANDALL (6:46 PM) —I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. As we have heard, this bill removes financial liability for detention and related costs for certain people and extinguishes existing debts to the government incurred through detention and transportation. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration heard it costs around $125 a day, as the previous member has just said, to hold a person in detention. As such, an estimated $350 million will be written off by this federal government through these changes. As a former chair of this Joint Standing Committee on Migration and as a member of the committee until November last year, these are matters which I am familiar with and have a longstanding interest in.

The coalition was and remains unashamedly tough on border protection. The move by the Labor government to abolish detention debt is just another in a long line of policy shifts continuing to weaken Australia’s strong immigration system. I have previously noted the serious political, economic and social issues facing other countries around the world which may have been inundated with illegal immigrants through people smuggling. That is what the coalition’s policy was designed to avoid: the mass illegal immigration crises that face several European nations. The coalition policy did work. It was highly successful in stemming the tide of unlawful arrivals, particularly by boat, allowing us to welcome thousands of genuine refugees from throughout the world.

The Rudd government will have us believe that the detention debt is being extinguished because it is simply ineffective and people just do not pay. It is true that only 2.5 per cent of the detention debts invoiced since 2005 have actually been collected. In fact, around $1.8 million of the $54 million debt that occurred in 2006-07 and 2007-08 was recovered. But it is that the detention debt policy acts as a deterrent. This is where I have a different point of view from others, as you have just heard. It is one of the many deterrents that should be embedded in our system.

This move forms part of a bigger picture and must be seen in its overall context. It is just another example of the Rudd government’s lax approach to protecting Australia’s borders. In light of the government’s weak position on border protection, any deterrent is better than none. With the raft of changes to immigration, Labor has given the green light to people smugglers, and Australia’s borders are once again opened for business. Since November 2007, the statistics speak for themselves. People smugglers are once again operating a boom business because Australia is seen as a soft touch. The existing framework for detention debt collection provides the means for the department of immigration to make arrangements for payment. In many cases, it will not be granted until such payment arrangements are in place. The existing legislation has safeguards in place to protect those people who have no means to pay. Those people are able to structure manageable and affordable repayments. In many cases, fees are waived. It is a welcome relief that the government has retained the detention debt obligations for illegal fishermen, people smugglers and deported noncitizens. They should have to pay for their detention and transport costs.

Since taking government the Labor Party has done little else to deter people smugglers from testing the Australian waters once again. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. The Rudd government wants Australians to believe that its softening on border protection is creating ‘a fair and more humane system’. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, it was in 1992, under the previous Labor government of Paul Keating—and under a good old leftie in the form of Gerry Hand—that the detention debt provisions were introduced into the Migration Reform Act. The message the Labor government has sent is that, if you can get here, you can stay here. I repeat this. The message now sent out by this Labor government to all those who would come here unlawfully is that, if you can get here, you can stay here because we will give you a visa. That is a great pull factor, because all they know now is that if they get on that leaky little boat and they get to the Australian shores then they will be taken off to Christmas Island and eventually they will get their visa. People smugglers, particularly those in Indonesia, have heard that message loud and clear. That is not the integrity that we want in our migration system. We were very proud of the integrity that the Australian migration system had until now.

Let us examine some of the facts. As you know, the Rudd government closed the processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. They have abolished temporary protection visas. Asylum seekers can access funds for advice and assistance. Asylum seekers do not have to be held in detention, because the minister for immigration has told the department that officers have to justify why they are detaining someone, not presume detention is the option. Remember, it is the Labor Party who brought in mandatory detention under Gerry Hand. The onus of proof has shifted. It is this relaxing of the requirements that the people smugglers have tuned into, and they are now dreaming of dollars.

On top of closing detention facilities and abolishing TPVs, the government has cut funding to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, to border protection and to Customs. Immigration alone has lost some 600 staff. This puts the department under increasing pressure at a time when it can least afford it, stretching resources thin and leaving it without the means to tackle the people-smuggling epidemic. In any case, the minister has given every indication that he does not trust the decisions of the department. While the coalition supports ministerial intervention in circumstances where it is warranted, it is concerned that Minister Evans seems to be doing it with gay abandon. The minister has overturned more than 1,000 decisions of the tribunal and/or courts between September 2007 and March 2009. With an intervention rate of 25 per cent, he is leagues ahead of his predecessors, who averaged a mere two to five per cent. I must qualify that before I move on. There is a role for ministerial intervention for fairness, but this seems somewhat out of kilter. Sometimes tribunals and the appeal mechanisms do not actually get it right, and it is good to know that the executive of government does have some flexibility.

The Indonesian ambassador has said that people smugglers are using Mr Rudd’s soft touch as a marketing ploy. That is the ambassador. We all remember the interview on the ABC with an Indonesian asylum seeker who said that coming to Australia was now seen as much easier. The International Organisation for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Indonesia, Steve Cook, has said that people smugglers had taken note of Australia’s policy changes and were ‘testing the envelope’, in his words. The Australian Federal Police reportedly warned the government that its softening of border protection laws would encourage people smugglers. So it has been warned. Around 800 asylum seekers have arrived on Prime Minister Rudd’s watch since he softened border protection policies in August 2008. Between 2002 and 2005 only one boat arrived in Australia. One reason why people come by boat—and not everybody understands this—is that people who come by boat have a greater success rate in getting a visa than those who come by plane and go through Villawood detention centre et cetera. So a boat landing if you come here unlawfully is a far better option for success in getting a visa.

That softening sent out a strong message, and it has worked for the people smugglers. But this government chooses to pass the buck and find every excuse in the book for the increased arrivals other than its own policy. For example, it says there is dislocation in nearby countries—such as Burma, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Afghanistan—but this was the case previously. We do know—and the Federal Police have executed warrants and the state police have been involved—that some of the so-called Sri Lankan asylum seekers were Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam operatives coming to Australia to help raise money for their cause. It is a very serious case and some people misrepresent themselves.

People smuggling cannot be condoned. Those who have any sympathy with it should remember the tragic explosion off Western Australia’s coast in April on the SIEV 36, which was carrying asylum seekers. That burnt boat was an example of people smuggling gone wrong and of lives being put in danger. As we know, several people died. It is the sordid make-up of people smugglers. I think the Prime Minister even called them evil. These criminals put lives at risk and exploit vulnerable people merely to line their own pockets. The influx of asylum seekers is stretching resources at Christmas Island. As the shadow minister for foreign affairs, my colleague Julie Bishop, pointed out in Western Australia recently, the government has been caught completely off guard because of its softening of border protection and it is struggling to deal with the arrivals.

Where is the money going to come from to build the additional infrastructure at Christmas Island in the current climate? The government has already saddled Australians with $315 billion in debt, and we know there is no end in sight. In last month’s budget the Treasurer allocated $14 million to voluntary return for those found not to meet the criteria for visas. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young—the infamous Senator Sarah Hanson-Young—said:

Detention debts have been a flagrant form of adding insult to injury to those who come to Australia seeking our assistance and protection.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind that senator that the coalition has a long and proud history of resettling genuine refugees who have been found to have been suffering the most appalling circumstances and who are indeed in urgent need of protection. In government the coalition increased the annual number of resettlement places by 6,000. Australia is among the most generous nations in the world in taking in genuine refugees. Together with the United States and Canada, Australia has become a safe haven for thousands of refugees. In 2006-07 Australia settled some 9,600 people. In fact, the average number of humanitarian entrants to Australia every year is more than 14,000—or thereabouts, depending on the circumstances. But we know that those who come by boat or come illegally actually take the place of those who are in the queue to be settled here as genuine asylum seekers or refugees.

The report recently presented by the migration committee reiterates the intention. It recommends people in detention be released into the community before identity and security checks are completed. Furthermore, it is recommended that asylum seekers be given the right to work, temporary accommodation, income support and furniture before processing. They probably received the bonus as well, like the half a million other temporary visa holders with work rights who were eligible for the last cash splash.

A fact that is not widely known is that in the May federal budget some $4 million was put aside so that those coming to Australia unlawfully did not have to wait for the 45 days, so they could apply for Centrelink and Medicare benefits immediately. I am out there in my electorate trying to get for older people, people on low incomes and people at risk money from Centrelink and the support that they need, but they are now in a queue with these people that have had the 45-day rule waived. That does not go down very well with people. I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that much of the talk in the front bar of the hotels in and around my electorate is that people are pretty unhappy with this change of rule. The government are either oblivious to the sentiment of the wider Australian community or they do not care. The truth is they are not serious about keeping Australian borders strong or about maintaining a credible and respectable migration system. I thank the House.