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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7193

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (12:17 PM) —I rise to speak against the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 for good and sensible reasons which have caused the opposition to say that we will be voting against the bill. If you look at the analysis that the Bills Digest has done of the amount of debt that is incurred by people who are locked up for breaking migration laws and you look at the amount of money that is actually recovered, you will find that, by and large, the majority of the amounts of money that are incurred by way of detention expenses or charges are either written off or waived. So the argument concerning this bill is not about whether or not people who are found subsequently to be legitimate refugees are penalised; the argument is about the signal that is being sent to the people smugglers.

If you look at the way in which the people-smuggling business ramped up in the nineties and became of almost epidemic proportions, you will find that the action that the Howard government took sent a very strong message. We said very firmly that we would have strong border protection laws and that we would use offshore screening of people who claim to be refugees so as not to see the rorting of our court system that went on previously, where people would destroy their documents of identification and claim to be different nationalities from the ones that they were. There was no way of proving it one way or the other and they continued to churn through and clog up our legal system. We sent out a very strong message that Australia was very serious about saying, ‘If you want to come to this country then you have to come in the proper, legitimate ways.’ Where people were found to be refugees, they gained that status and then came to Australia to live. In addition to that, we have the refugee quota, which makes us a very generous nation in terms of the number of refugees we take. When you look at the per capita analysis, we are perhaps the most generous country in the world.

It is important that we do protect our borders and also protect the people who become the cargo of people smugglers—those people who conduct that horrendous trade in people. In 2001, we took that very strong stand and it became an election issue. If you look at the 1990s, you will see that thousands of illegal immigrants came by boat to this country. After we won the election in 2001 the number of boats and people that arrived by that method in 2002-03 was nil. It stopped. For the next years they were very small numbers. In 2003-04 three boats came, with 82 people. In 2004-05: nil. Again, we won that election and said that we were strong, that we would continue to protect our borders. In 2005-06 eight boats came, 61 people. In 2007-08 three boats came. But, in August 2008, the current government abolished temporary protection visas and sent a signal that said Australia was again to become a soft touch. Straight away the boats started to come. The unscrupulous people who trade in human lives were again setting up their trade. They saw the signal and said, ‘Australia’s a soft touch.’ Temporary protection visas were gone. So, since August 2008, we have had 22 boats, bringing 839 people—an enormous increase in trafficking.

By allowing this legislation to pass, or if the legislation is passed, it sends another signal: that we are again taking away from the strong stance that we have had. In practical terms it makes very little difference at all. Only 3.3 per cent of all the debts that are incurred are actually recovered. The biggest proportion of them are written off. Being written off does not mean to say that they disappear. If circumstances arose where it was shown that the people who have incurred those debts could indeed pay them, then they can be revived. The only way they totally cannot be revived is if they are waived by the finance minister pursuant to the Financial Management and Accountability Act.

The Bills Digest, which has done a very good analysis of the bill, points out:

Departmental policy is that consideration should be given to writing off debts if the debtor:

resides overseas and cannot be traced or

is known to be destitute and there is no prospect of their financial situation improving in the near future.

The debt is waived by the minister on moral grounds rather than on financial grounds where it is seen that there is an obligation that it should be waived:

… where it has been found that person was lawfully in Australia and should not have been detained, or when it is considered that repayment of a person’s debt would cause them undue financial hardship …

In those circumstances the debt can be and very often is waived.

So the central analysis of this bill is the signal that it sends to people smugglers to again bring their boats, putting at risk the lives of people who are willing to pay them large sums of money to enable them to make those dangerous crossings. So the opposition, in choosing to oppose this bill, has done so in the national interest. It is not a decision that has been taken for any other reason. Australia believes that, by having strong border protection laws and by having a strong message that is sent out and known by people who would be traders in human cargo, the likelihood of their being successful is not very great and they are less likely to trade in that way. So it is very important from an opposition’s point of view that we continue to argue very strongly that it is in the national interest to have strong border protection laws, and it is in the interests of the people who would have their lives placed at risk by being the cargo of the people smugglers that we are opposing the bill and will be voting against it.

I know that there are some who think that leaving in place the provisions that allow the fees to be collected—and they are in the vicinity of about $124 a day—is somehow a harsh or unusual thing to do. I do not believe it is. I think it is a fair and reasonable system, one that was first put in place by the Labor government in 1992 and continued by us. But the most important issue is that it would be sending a signal to the people smugglers if we do not oppose this bill and say that, when we are back in government, this would be our policy. So I simply say that, in opposing the bill and giving my support to the opposition’s position that we are opposing the legislation, I do so because I believe it is in the national interest.