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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7088

Mr SCHULTZ (7:14 PM) —I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. From the outset, I express my complete disgust at the Rudd Labor government’s continued attempts to weaken the integrity of Australia’s borders. One of the things that we as Australians have to understand is that we live on an island that has been subjected to significant pressures from offshore over many decades. Whilst the purpose of this bill is to amend the Migration Act to remove the requirement that certain people held in immigration detention in Australia are liable for the cost of their detention, it does not take into account—whilst it might be ideologically approved in some members’ minds on the opposite side—the significant problems that this creates for genuine refugees offshore who are trying to come into this country through legitimate means.

You can understand why the people who come in on the boats—with the irresponsible people smugglers who bring these people from mainly Indonesia to our shores in an attempt to get them into our country illegally under a system whereby they receive remuneration for doing so—would be clapping their hands at this particular time, knowing full well that the current government has relaxed the very significant penalties that were introduced and policed by the former, Howard government. Those penalties were envisioned in 1992 by the former Labor government and the former Labor Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs Gerry Hand. To his credit, as the shadow minister for immigration and citizenship said in her speech, Gerry Hand saw the threat that a continued stream of unauthorised arrivals placed on Australia’s humanitarian capacity. The member for Mitchell made reference to that and so did Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, when she, as shadow minister for immigration under the leadership of, I think, Simon Crean, prepared the ALP policy for border protection in 2004.

There was no ALP policy to speak of in 2007, which is interesting, but the Deputy Prime Minister, in her policy, made the following points that were very relevant to what the opposition is concerned about today—that is, moving away from the continuation of temporary protection visas. She said there should be a continuation of mandatory detention; the introduction of a coastguard; increased penalties for people smuggling, including 20-year jail terms and $1 million fines; 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 in the journey to Australia; and so on. It was all centred around the very policies that were introduced and tightened up by the former, Howard government following the original concern of the then Labor government in 1992 about people coming into this country illegally.

We all know that at present not all persons unlawfully in Australia are liable for the cost of their detention. The intention of the charges is to ensure that all unlawful noncitizens bear primary responsibility for the costs associated with their detention, deportation or removal. That was not a comment by a member from this side of the House; that was a comment by the then minister for immigration, Gerry Hand, in 1992 when he was speaking to the bill. It was made abundantly clear in the explanatory memorandum to the Migration Reform Act 1992, which the minister introduced.

The coalition has always taken a very strong stand on preserving the integrity of Australia’s migration programs. We believe in an orderly and properly managed immigration and humanitarian program and we will continue to ensure that Australia remains one of the most generous providers of humanitarian resettlement in the world, as was mentioned by the member for Mitchell, but we will do this in a way that does not encourage abuse of Australia’s migration program and the barbaric people-smuggling trade that endangers the lives of people who seek to enter Australia illegally—and I emphasise the word ‘illegally’. As part of that balanced approach to immigration, the coalition believes that we need a range of policy measures that maintain the integrity of Australia’s migration and humanitarian programs. That is what it is about: the integrity of the existing migration and humanitarian programs.

The Rudd Labor government, on the other hand, has in this bill unravelled all the measures designed to keep our borders secure and, instead, is sending a very strong message to people smugglers and, indeed, to the people seeking to come into this country illegally—not through the organised process that is available to them. It is also reinforcing the message to people smugglers that they can restart their abhorrent trade, which was stopped as a result of the policies of the previous government in terms of putting people in detention when they came into this country illegally from offshore.

Requiring the payment of the cost of detention is one of the measures that the previous government adhered to, along with others. It makes it very difficult for people smugglers to market Australia as a soft option, because it sends a very strong message to them and to the people they are carrying on their boats that there is a cost associated with it: you will be put in detention and you will be billed for that cost.

The coalition is going to oppose the current government’s decision to abolish detention debts, because there are safeguards in the legislation to ensure that any genuine asylum seekers who do not have the means to pay are given manageable repayment schedules or have their detention debts waived or written off. That is already there, so I cannot see why we are going down the path we are going down and putting our borders at risk for a variety of reasons by waiving any debts that people may have.

It is interesting that we are doing this because there is an issue that I want to raise in this debate that politicians from both sides of the House may have forgotten about or have not yet decided is important enough to do something about. It relates to people coming to this country, and I will mention that and read some correspondence on that very shortly.

Improving the administrative arrangements is of course always welcomed by any government of any description in this great place, because there are always administrative problems that need to be tidied up. The legislative process in this House does not always put legislation out into the community that is 100 per cent foolproof. Sometimes the advice that we get from the bureaucrats who put this legislation together in the form of bills is not always right, and in many cases it is not always justified or, in some instances, humane. You certainly have to make sure that any legislative process that occurs here acts as a deterrent against abuse of our migration programs or against people smugglers who are selling the ALP’s soft approach to this problem.

It is distressing from the point of view of those people who have a passionate view about the protection of Australia’s borders that at this particular time we see a record number of illegal boat arrivals. The coalition believes that all government policies must send a clear and unambiguous message that people smuggling will not be tolerated in Australia and that the integrity of our migration and humanitarian program must be maintained.

I raised an issue in my contribution earlier that I said is very important in terms of people coming into this country. It is centred on the orderly way in which people should be allowed to come into the country. I am not talking about the illegals that come on the boats. They are illegals, regardless of what some people might say—and I notice with some satisfaction the smirks that are coming from people from the ministers’ offices here in this chamber to record what is being said.

For over three years now I have been involved in a very, very serious situation in trying to assist a local family to obtain permanent residency in Australia for their elderly parents. The amount of red tape that has to be navigated to gain permanent residency for people who have come, or are attempting to come, to Australia legitimately through the front door is not only insurmountable but also extremely expensive. People wishing to gain legitimate entry to Australia—as an example, a parent—are facing waiting times of up to 12 years or are required to pay fees in excess of $50,000 for the privilege of permanent residency and access to our social security system. Here we are, talking about waiving the debts of people that have arrived illegally in this country and charging people who have arrived legitimately $50,000 to get some permanent status here.

I would just like to read a letter from one of my constituents, who wrote to the Hon. Senator Christopher Evans, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, about this situation. He said:

Dear Mr Christopher Evans,

I John El Hazouri of 42 Dutton Rd Buxton NSW 2571, the son of my elderly parents Elias El Hazzouri, 76 and Barbara El Hazzouri, 72 am writing to you on behalf of our family asking for your help and support in regards to an application for my parents becoming permanent Australian residents due to extenuating circumstances, such as their deteriorating medical conditions, their dependability on us as care takers and their hardship & living conditions if they were to return back home to Lebanon.

I will not go on with the history of when they came into Australia because it turns out that—and this is all in a letter to the minister and I have made representations on their behalf—they did in fact overstay their visa and, having done that, through the family they then decided to make the appropriate approaches to their federal members, and their state member, I might add. I have received a letter of support from the Hon. Phillip Costa MP, who is a minister in the Rees New South Wales government. He is the member for Wollondilly and a great bloke to work with. He and I have been cooperatively working together to try to get permanent residency for this elderly couple. Their sons and daughter have all become Australian citizens since they came into this country, and good Australian citizens.

I would just like to describe from this letter the background of this elderly couple. The letter from one of the sons goes on to say:

They were living in the centre of 35 villages all with different religions causing continuous conflict and instability in the region. They faced a dreadful time during the war, having to fear for their lives as they run from place to place trying to protect them selves. Living conditions were and still are sub-standard making it difficult for them to return to the village especially with the heavy undulating nature of the surrounding landscape. They would have to walk up a steep 1.5km incline just to get to the public road in the aim of getting assistance due to any health or other issues. In this case my mother suffers from osteoarthritis in both knees which produce heavy swelling in her legs, making it hard to walk short distances without assistance. My father also has diabetes and osteoarthritis in his knees and right shoulder. It was also financially difficult from my parents, struggling to pay for daily necessities let alone medication and treatment.

We tried to support them before, sending money overseas but they were regularly targeted by armed people when they went to withdraw it from the bank, which happened to many other people. We also have sisters in Lebanon who live too far apart and can hardly take care of themselves and their families, which would make their life harder if they were to also take care of my parents. I strongly believe that they wont be capable of looking after my parents compared with the supervision and assistance we can provide them on a daily basis. We also include a doctors report for my parents current health, recent photos of the house they used to live in and a general sketch of my parents village to further explain this issue.

What has happened since then—and this was written on 7 December 2007—is that unfortunately the father has passed away. Once again I have made further representations to the current minister.

Debate interrupted.