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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7201

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (1:06 PM) —in reply—I thank the members for their contributions in this debate. I will take up the admonishment of the member for New England. I do not want to belabour the point of divisions in the coalition. I just want to recognise the particular contributions of the members for Kooyong, Pearce, Hughes and McMillan.

Only yesterday, I spoke to two visiting schools from my electorate, Auburn West Public School and Granville South Public School. I gave them the same message that I give to every school that comes to this parliament, which is that parliament is not just about question time and the rancour of the day, the exhibitionism and the attempts to get on top of one another. Parliament is based on a large degree of cooperation. People work through committee processes. The government of the day does not usually exercise its majority position. Both sides seek compromise and seek accommodation to get a majority report which has an effect on the government. That is an important part of the debate. It is a point that those four speakers clearly stressed.

The Joint Committee on Migration gave serious consideration to these matters. It heard witnesses, listened to individuals and examined the realities. They did not come to the debate with rhetoric, scare tactics and a lack of information. So I want to very much recognise the contributions of those four members. Often in parliamentary life we do not agree with our party. If anyone says that they agree all the time, they are liars. But very rarely do we see people who have the courage to take that to its ultimate limit. I recognise their role in these matters.

I will not reiterate the nature of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. We have been through that. Essentially, the bill seeks to clearly drive home that a fair and effective immigration detention policy and strong border security are not incompatible with fairness. I note, as I did a moment ago, that in introducing this legislation the government has accepted and acted upon the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Committee on Migration report of last December, the first of three reports from its current inquiry, Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning.

This resolution was unanimous—and I stress that it was unanimous. People who are now trying to disassociate themselves from it, run into the corner, hide away and say that they were not part of it could have—as done in this other report by that committee, Immigration detention in Australia: community based alternatives—put in minority reports or put in dissenting comments. That did not happen. For people to come in here many months later and say that somehow they were not watching the game, they missed out on being part of it all or they have had second thoughts because new realities have emerged is absolutely ridiculous.

In making its unanimous recommendation, the committee commented on the administrative inefficiencies of the policy, noting that less than three per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 has been collected. This was during the period of the previous government. The level of waivers and written-off debts has nothing to do with whether the Labor Party or the Liberal Party have been in government. It has been a reality throughout the time that this system has operated. Less than three per cent has been recovered. The reality is that the policy is ineffective. It is all right to say, ‘We’re going to look tough; we’re going to hold the line; we’re going to talk a lot of rhetoric on these issues.’ But the policy is ineffective—everyone knows that.

That committee—and I say again that it was unanimous—said:

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.

This conclusion is further supported by recent information. We note that in regard to the 2008-09 year the cost to the department of administering detention debts will be approximately $709,000. I heard one of the opposition members saying, ‘Oh, we’ll have some system that will not cost anything to collect money.’ That is preposterous. Realistically, people do not walk up and give you the money. We have to pursue it, and it costs money; it costs taxpayers money. This year, the cost for this year will be $709,000, and $477,000 has been recovered.

The joint committee also focused on the adverse impact of detention debt on those who either remained in Australia or who had connections to the country, citing concerns about:

… the burden on mental wellbeing, the ability to repay the debt, and the restrictions a debt could place on options for returning to Australia on a substantive visa.

The following concerns were raised with the committee:

… detention debts are a source of substantial anxiety to ex-detainees, and may impede the capacity of the ex-detainees to establish a productive life …

The committee made particular reference to the adverse impact detention debt often had on the mental health of former detainees, noting that the imposition of a significant debt often prolonged or exacerbated mental health problems. The committee referred to the limited earning capacity of many people on their release from detention, and the financial hardship that substantial debts caused.

I particularly note, as I did when introducing this bill last week, that unanimous recommendation 18 to repeal the liability for immigration detention costs had the support of all coalition members on the committee—most notably, the opposition immigration spokesperson, Dr Sharman Stone. I note that there was some suggestion from the members opposite that the member for Murray had not in fact endorsed the committee report. I think that I dealt with that earlier. I also wonder about the member for Murray’s interview on Sky News on 2 December 2008. When asked if she welcomed the report’s recommendations, the member for Murray said, ‘I do.’ That sounds like an endorsement as far as I am concerned. In the context of the unanimous and bipartisan recommendation of the committee, it is extremely disappointing that the opposition has decided to oppose the bill.

Much has been made of the fact that the detention debt was introduced by Labor in 1992. That is correct. But we are happy to acknowledge and act when a policy is not working. On any estimation, this policy has failed. The opposition may be content to stick with failed and punitive policies like detention debt and temporary protection visas, but this government is interested in good public policy, not the politics of scare mongering.

The opposition’s stated rationale for opposing the bill is simply not supported by fact. The bill does not represent a softening of Australia’s border security. Firstly, let us make it clear that the broader argument that there is any cause and effect relationship between the movement of asylum seekers and our domestic immigration policies is false. Dr Rosalind Richardson of Charles Sturt University has studied the issue—she has actually done some work on it. She interviewed asylum seekers and asked about these matters in a systemic way. She found that none of the people interviewed arrived in Australia with any detailed understanding of Australia’s immigration policies.

Secondly, while the opposition may prefer denial and obfuscation, the facts demonstrate that push factors are driving irregular movement to Australia. The majority—

Dr Stone interjecting

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON —I know a bit about what is going on, my friend, when we turn to this argument by the opposition that the world is beautiful, there are no push factors and people are coming here simply because they understand our policy. Those of us who take some interest in world events know that in Sadr City 100 people were murdered in a bomb attack. We know that this week the Speaker of the Somali parliament has called for foreign intervention to protect them from foreign extremists. We appreciate, as I said last week, that the conclusion of the civil war in Sri Lanka means that there are enormous pressures for Tamil movement to this country. Only today, I received correspondence from the Tamil Federation of Australia appealing for help for three doctors who have been detained by the Sri Lankan government.

I notice that there was another bombing in Taza near Kirkuk the other week. There are estimates of 67 dead and 200 wounded. We are looking at Iran today. Surely the struggle over democracy in that country is going to have some impact in the long term. And that is not to deny the suppression of human rights over the last three decades there. Another speaker spoke about Morgan Tsvangirai. What happened in the last fortnight? He went to London and was booed down by expatriates there because of the failures of the coalition government. I do not lessen his effort, but that is the reality.

I had the opportunity last weekend during Refugee Week to go to Adelaide to hear an impressive young woman from Sierra Leone talk about not only why she came to this country but more importantly the continued suffering of Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea. I also had the opportunity on the weekend to go to a Karen function. There are no push factors according to the opposition; it is all to do with Australian law. The reality is that there has been a tax imposed on the Karen people over the last fortnight and hundreds of thousands are being forced to move. According to the opposition, there was nothing happening in the Swat Valley in the last few months. It has all been peaceful. There have been no attacks; there have been no people relocated. Quite frankly, if the lead spokesman over there says that we are unaware of the world’s realities, I say that there is a clear push factor in the number of boats coming to this country.

Another important point is that the irregular movements of people are not isolated to Australia. If it is about Australian laws, one would see a correlation between Australian demand and our laws. In actual fact, by world standards, despite the fact that one-third of those people who are refugee humanitarian claimants are in our part of the world, the numbers we are receiving are minimal. I refer to figures overseas: Europe had 330,000 claimants in the year 2008; 36,000 people arrived in Italy alone—and that is why Italy is negotiating with Libya and why Gaddafi was there the other week being welcomed and back-slapped by Prime Minister Berlusconi; 15,000 refugees arrived in Greece; and 13,000 arrived in Spain. Even Malta, under huge pressure on this matter, had 2,700 arrivals. You have heard those figures. The figure for Australia was 161 claimants in the same period.

The UNHCR report 2008 global trends: refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, internally displaced and stateless persons shows there were 42 million people forcibly displaced around the world in 2008, including 15.2 million refugees. The UNHCR report shows that asylum claims increased worldwide by 28 per cent last year. There is supposedly no push factor; it is all about Australian law! They are the international figures. The United States received nearly 50,000 claimants, Canada received 35,000 and South Africa received 207,000. The UNHCR’s report demonstrates not only that 4,750 people seeking asylum in Australia in 2008 was relatively small in global terms but also that the increase in people seeking asylum in Australia is part of a worldwide trend driven by insecurity, persecution and conflict.

Australia is not immune from these trends. On the narrow argument put forward by the opposition, there is simply no evidence to suggest that the existence of detention debts is any sort of deterrent to unauthorised boat arrivals. This is in fact a totally illogical argument, soundly dismissed by the member for Hughes in the course of this debate. It has been a longstanding departmental policy, under both the former government and this government, that if a person is granted a protection visa or humanitarian visa, in keeping with the spirit of the UN convention the debt is written off and no further action is taken to recover the detention debt. In accordance with that policy, any detention debt raised by unauthorised boat arrivals who are subsequently granted a protection or humanitarian visa is not pursued—as I say, a policy decades long under both governments. Around 90 per cent of unauthorised boat arrivals whose claims were considered were granted protection visas. It is very difficult to see how a policy that does not apply to the vast majority of unauthorised boat people can act as any deterrent whatsoever.

I turn now to some of the points raised during the debate. It was very disappointing to listen to the member for Murray trying to justify a backflip on this issue. As has been mentioned numerous times in debate, as a member of the committee she endorsed the call for the abolition of detention debt. Now, without any proof or logic, she claims that the changes she supported are encouraging people smugglers. I would have thought she might have found that conclusion at the time. As I have just outlined, this is an argument defective in every respect. Yesterday the member claimed ‘the department should get its act together’ on administering detention debt. I am curious about this argument. Any private company acting in accordance with prudent financial management principles faced with this rate of recovery would have abandoned this program years ago. The member argued that the image of former detainees laden with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt being unable to move on with their lives was a furphy. The member obviously did not pay attention to evidence before the committee. The committee’s first report refers to two cases. The Refugee Action Committee reported the case of the accumulated debt for a family held in detention:

After six years in a detention centre and another three years living as a refugee in Melbourne, Hossein … an Iranian refugee, has been advised by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that he owes an amount of $200,000 which represents the cost of keeping his wife, daughter and son locked up in the Curtin Detention  Centre in Western Australia for three years.

The committee report also referred to a case highlighted by the Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, which described a family who had been advised in the year ended June 2007 that their debt was more than $340,000. But that is apparently easy for them to manage—no problems. That does not sound like a furphy to me. We do not expect much from the member for Murray these days. The opposition spokesperson on immigration and citizenship has been eager to play politics with the immigration issue. The member infamously laid blame for the five deaths on the SIEV 36 within hours of the explosion on the government. I recognise that the Leader of the Opposition was not impressed with that argument and did not associate himself with it.

Not only does the member play politics but she continually gets facts wrong. It is hard to determine whether this is through incompetence or by design. The member has repeatedly made false claims about Labor cutting resources for border protection when in fact the Rudd Labor government has increased border security resources. The government announced a massive $1.3 billion package in this year’s budget to further strengthen Australia’s border protection and national security regime. The member for Murray will also explain to us why Christmas Island was being built in the first place if the then government’s policies were going to lead to nobody coming here and why that public money was expended when she knew that the policy was going to end because of their actions.

Of this $1.3 billion, $654 million is specifically dedicated to a whole-of-government strategy to combat people smuggling. The federal budget provides $654 million of funding to (1) increase and extend our sea and aerial surveillance capacity, including two additional surveillance aircraft, and (2) strengthen Australia’s engagement with our regional partners and international organisations so we can work together to address this global problem. I note there the recent announcement of the extradition of a major people smuggler, who was hanging around having coffees in restaurants and cafes in Indonesia for who knows how many years under the previous government and who has now been brought back here. That is the result of the policy of cooperation with the Indonesian and other regional governments. Finally, that amount of money will go to strengthen our legal and prosecution capacity and enhance regional cooperation on people-smuggling laws.

But that is not all that the member for Murray gets wrong. She comments on the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s exercise of ministerial discretion, a thing close to the heart of the member for Berowra, a long-term campaigner for ministerial discretion. One day she is claiming the minister is ambivalent about exercising the powers; the next day she suggests he exercises the powers too often. Like most of what she has said today, it is very confused indeed. I am not sure where the member for Murray is getting her figures from but for the record in 2006-07, the last financial year of the previous government, the rate of approvals was 31 per cent. She might be surprised to know that for December 2007 to May 2009 there is a very interesting figure—31 per cent still. The member for Murray should aim for a bit of consistency. Yesterday the member was critical of the government’s announced changes to the 45-day rule, yet only a few months ago, when again sitting on that joint committee, the shadow immigration minister and another coalition member expressed concerns about a lack of access to work rights and Medicare. The member for Murray expressed concerns that we were not being liberal enough. She said:

I also share Danna’s concern about the employment situation, because a lot of the people on bridging visas who have health costs, in particular, are in a great deal of strife when it comes to being able to manage their own affairs. What are you doing about access to Medicare for health costs for people on bridging visas?

Later she said:

Evidence has been from both the NGOs and from the people on bridging visas themselves, and of course we do not have any ability to work out what numbers we are talking about …

Dr Stone interjecting

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON —I think you have been ridiculed by a number of speakers in regard to your repudiation of your own report.

As I said earlier, it is difficult to determine whether the member’s inconsistency is symptomatic of incompetence or by design. Perhaps one or two backflips could be described as purely incompetent. Simple incompetence can generally be forgiven but not tolerated. However, the litany of misrepresentations, unexplained backflips and inflammatory statements outlined here, which have become the hallmark of the member, signal something far more troublesome. They signal three things. Firstly, it is a coalition without principles determined to use immigration policy for its own nefarious political purposes—nothing particularly new there. Secondly, it is a coalition without direction—nothing you couldn’t have read in every press report this week. Thirdly and most worryingly for the Australian public, they signal it is a coalition without any immigration policy other than the policy of division, a topic that those opposite are well versed in.

I want to briefly turn to one person who had the courage to stand totally behind the previous government. Firstly, I note the shadow spokesperson equivocates. She disassociates herself from some policies and then she crawls back, having put them forward. But the member for Mitchell was more courageous in this debate. He defended rigorously all the policies of the previous government. He justified, by implication and sometimes categorically, the detention of Cornelia Rau and that of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon and that of Tony Tran, the husband of an Australian citizen wrongfully detained for five years and assaulted while in detention. The Commonwealth Ombudsman identified, during this glorious decade-long policy position, 247 cases where people were detained who were ‘not unlawful’. The Rudd government are currently going through the process of compensating those people. We know that $311 million-plus was spent on the offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and on Manus Island. Despite the rhetoric of ‘we are going to decide who goes where’, we know that essentially in total 60 per cent of those people came to this country afterwards. I support the bill before the House. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.