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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7198

Mr OAKESHOTT (12:44 PM) —I begin my contribution to the debate on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 by making two points which shape my view. The first is that this is an amendment to the Migration Act 1958 to remove the requirement that certain persons held in detention are liable for their cost of detention. Importantly, this excludes people smugglers and illegal fishers, who will still be liable for costs of detention and removal. So the minister may determine the amount people smugglers and illegal fishers will be charged and it cannot be more than the actual cost. I start with that point because I have listened closely to the debate and there have been references to people smugglers and illegal fishers. This amendment very much excludes those involved in those illegal acts and therefore any reference to people smugglers or illegal fishers is misleading and is being used to mislead and send incorrect messages.

The second point that shapes my view is in relation to debt collection. Any family or business in Australia when seeking to collect debts does their best to do so. But a strike rate of failure to collect debts of 97.5 per cent would send a message, I think, to every family and every business in this country that this policy is failing. It is a policy that is not hard in the paradigm that I have been hearing of hard versus soft; it is a policy that is failing within a paradigm of successful, considered policy versus ill-thought-through and failing policy.

It is that paradigm shift that I want people in this place to consider when they decide how they will vote in this debate. I have heard plenty of references to the messages of a softening of policy. I do not consider it hard policy that has seen a 97.5 per cent failure rate of debt collection. What I see is a stupid policy; a policy that is failing and that has been failing since it was introduced. If we are to have messages that are clear not only to the Australian nation but also to the potential people smugglers and illegal fishers, then I would hope the hard message is a policy that works, that is sensible and that has the unity of the nation in delivering a really clear strategic set of principles on how we deliver migration policy in this land.

What I see as those general underlying principles are, hopefully, a point of unity for everyone in this chamber. I see a migration policy that has places where we deal with people who arrive here legally or illegally—by whatever means they get here—swiftly, and sort out as quickly and as compassionately as we can, with as much justice as possible for all involved, who is in and who is out. Those who are in we try to get in as quickly as possible and provide a range of welcoming services to encourage them into being good, wholesome Australian citizens building a better country. Those who are out we deal with as compassionately and swiftly as possible and hopefully return them safely to the place they came from.

The story of migration policy over at least the last decade is a sordid one—and this is not a reference to one side of politics only. I think there are many lessons for all with regard to migration policy. There is a difference between real and sensible policy and flag-waving and sloganeering in migration policy—and the latter has got to stop. What we get is a worse Australia. In many cases we get broken Australians who have gone through an extraordinary process to legally qualify as Australians. We have people and politicians behaving badly, at times using sloganeering in migration policy to send messages of fear and messages that are simply incorrect as to how migration policy and migration processes work within this land.

I do not agree with what I have heard as being the concerns with this policy. I think it is a sensible step forward. I do not see it as sending the wrong message—that it is in some way a softening of migration policy in this land. We had a debt collection scheme that had a 97.5 per cent failure rate. I think it is a cleaning up of what is an unsuccessful, ill-considered policy. It is actually a step forward in putting in place a strategy and an overall policy that deals with people quickly, compassionately and in the interests of building a better Australia.

I challenge some of those paradigms that we have heard in debate today. The sloganeering that this is somehow a softening of a hard policy is wrong. If this is a paradigm that says rural Australians in particular have a hardline opinion on this, I think that is wrong as well. I represent a rural and regional electorate and I think the prevailing view when you get into a sensible discussion with people on this issue is that people want common sense, pragmatic policy to be produced by this place. They do not want the sloganeering. They do not want policy being used for political measures at the expense of good policy. I think we all have a role in this place to oblige that view and to do what we can to deliver the best policy outcomes. Then if there is a need for them to be explained within communities that is our role as local members of parliament—not to cash in on the political fear messages that can at times be used quite successfully in this very vexed area of migration policy.

I support the legislation. I hope it is part of a further reform package in which we start to see not only compassion and justice but also swift action in dealing with people no matter whether they are right or wrong or in or out with regard to being a future citizen of Australia. I hope this legislation is part of a suite of reforms whereby we start to see not just the hard messages from government. I do not think that is the problem as long as the hard messages of government are strategic, compassionate and just for all Australians—from the individuals who are involved in detention centres right through to people who have a very limited understanding of migration policy generally. I do not see a disconnect between those two if the government is delivering good sensible policy outcomes.

There are dangers in migration policy and one that we have seen exhibited again today is by all but four members of the opposition. It is to the credit of those four members for holding the line on this issue. I think we are seeing once again the unfortunate side of parliamentary process, which is that the lesser policy outcome that is being argued for is what is perceived to be the greater priority. That is political sloganeering, positioning or however you want to define it; it is the ugly side of the political process.

Our job in this place is to deliver the best policy outcome. This legislation is a sensible policy change, because what has been in place since 1992 has been failing. I would ask those who are trying to argue differently to explain how a 95 per cent failure rate is somehow a hard, sensible policy for the future.