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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7571

Mr MORRISON (Cook) (11:56): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge Bill 2012 and the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012 and to indicate the coalition will not be opposing these bills.

The bills were referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration because the coalition had some concerns about the modelling that had been used and the lack of detail provided to explain this modelling. We were also concerned about whether there would be any unintended consequences in relation to access to education and Medicare entitlements to visa holders. The committee has now completed its advisory report, which largely addressed the issues that the coalition had raised, and I thank the committee for their work. In particular, we are satisfied with the department's reassurances that the impact on visa holders access to services will not be compromised. We are also pleased to note that humanitarian entrants and some others will be exempt from the fee completely. We also note there will be a differentiated fee structure in place to allow for upward adjustments of the introductory flat fee of $70. The committee made two recommendations which we also support: first, that DIAC provide greater detail in the explanatory memoranda to more clearly explain the policy rationale and costing methodology; and, second, that the bills be passed without amendment. The stated reason for the bills is to introduce a charge for requests for evidence of a visa and is intended to discourage reliance on visa labels by immigration clients and foreign officials and to promote the use of online visa validation under the Visa Entitlement Verification Online or VEVO.

The coalition are very supportive of a shift in favour of electronic visa handling and had a record of this in government. We are pleased that the government have indicated that this is the direction in which they are also heading. We are also pleased to see that the department is actively engaged in plans to promote the uptake of VEVO and is working with other countries to clarify Australia's visa requirements. The moves are important if the purpose of these bills is to be realised and the coalition support these plans. We are also pleased the government have signalled that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will be moving closer toward a user-pays model with respect to these matters and on the face of it that seems to be a sensible approach. The bill feeds into some very important discussions that I would like to address today surrounding the economic nexus between immigration, customs, and quarantine operations, as our principal border agencies. There are three elements that warrant particular consideration in this place in the context of this bill: future trends and visa management; the revenue raising of border agencies and our ability to support our border agencies; and fiscal responsibility, more broadly, in relation to the immigration portfolio, which in part,, has demanded the need for the measures that are before us today. This bill will impose a $250 charge limit for request for visa labels to be inserted into a visa holder's passport. As noted earlier, the introductory flat-rate fee will be $70 and some visa classes will be exempt from the fee. Importantly, the bill will allow for future increases in that fee if a stronger price disincentive is required to further discourage requests for visa labels. The intent here is to discourage reliance on visa labels and the increased use of electronic systems to validate a non-citizen's right to enter Australia. This bill signposts an important shift in thinking within the immigration portfolio from hardcopy, paper based applications to more sophisticated, more efficient and more effective online management. According to the government's figures a total of 1.365 million visa labels were issues over calendar year 2011. By any measure, this represents an incredibly high volume of service undertaken at immigration counters in Australia and our missions overseas. The government has apparently made previous attempts to reduce the demand for hardcopy visa labels in the past with little success. In the absence of any requirement for individuals to have a hardcopy visa the proposed fee represents a strong price signal to discourage unnecessary service.

Based on the estimated revenue of $90 million over three years, I note that the government is estimating that the number of evidences would decline by more than 90 per cent to 120,000 per year. I think this is a very ambitious estimate, and if not realised would deliver a significant revenue windfall. Like every other estimate this government tends to make in terms of its budget, it would be foolish to bank on it until we actually see the revenue generated. With ever-improving technology and amassing intelligence databases, the ability to use electronic matrices to process, scrutinise and manage visas across the board should be used to as great an extent as possible, and this reflect coalition policy. We should be exploring opportunities to advance and build upon our current systems with the goal of making them more robust and with greater integrity. I encourage the government to pursue these measures enthusiastically.

The electronic lodgement of visa applications in particular correlates very strongly with achieving border management objectives by streamlining entry processes, significantly reducing the cost of border management while at the same time, I believe, providing the tools to better manage our borders from a nation security perspective. In Australia at present, excluding the Electronic Travel Authority, around 30 per cent of visa applications are submitted electronically from offshore. The rest are done in the old-fashioned way: by paper and snail mail. That is not a figure that the government should be proud of or this parliament should be proud of. For many visa categories there is no option to apply electronically; applications must be done by hardcopy. I understand why on specific occasions that is necessary, particularly in terms of verification. However, maximising the use of electronic lodgements, backed up by effective risk profiling, is the way forward for border security, efficiency, and fiscal responsibility. This approach will yield significant benefits not only for DIAC but for other agencies as well. While this bill on its own may be small, if this is an indication of a much bigger shift in thinking towards electronic processing and immigration then I consider this to be a positive sign and the coalition support this attitude.

The management of Australia's borders is highly complex and involved. Our agencies seek to coordinate the movement of both people and goods in and out of our country, and to ensure lawful regulation and governance of each person, and each parcel for that matter. As an island, we face cross-border threats from not only crime, terrorism, drugs and immigration fraud but also pests, diseases and people smuggling. The success of our border protection operations has wide-reaching ramifications. It is critical to our national security, while the seamless flow of people and cargo is vital to our continued success as an open-trading economy. Naturally, it involves cooperation and coordination to the highest degree and under a broad range of circumstances between the three key, primary border agencies who work in this critical space and, in many cases, share joint responsibilities. Collectively the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service employ 17,428 staff, and cost almost $4.4 billion per year to run in this current budget year. If we exclude non-border services such as the Cultural Diversity and Settlement Services program managed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship then we are looking at a cost across these three agencies of around $3.9 billion in 2011-12 and a staff of around 16,000 over these three agencies. These agencies are tasked to control the flow of people, goods, flora and fauna and any other biological matter across our borders. Failure to resource these national functions has serious consequences for our national security, our economy and our environment. It pays us to get this right, so the move towards these fee services is a way of ensuring that we can do just that. There are opportunities to raise revenue within each of these portfolio agencies. Naturally, there are also costs that must be met — much greater for some outcomes and outputs of these agencies, within their output classes, than for others.

There are serious issues that have consequences for national security, and obviously there are elements of expenditure that cannot be compromised. Inputs and outputs need to be carefully managed. Australia's border agencies operate as key revenue generators and collectors for the Commonwealth across the spectrum, collectively raising billions of dollars from administered and own-source revenue, excise and customs duty, visa application charges, passenger movement charges and an array of import processing charges. Had the government's proposal, which was considered by the House yesterday, to increase the passenger movement charge actually been about genuinely funding border control functions, and directly into those functions, rather than being a naked tax grab, perhaps it would have had more merit.

It follows that where there are opportunities within these areas to raise revenue and find more efficient ways of doing more with less, and doing it more effectively with less, we should be making the most of those opportunities. We should also be ensuring that these resources go into funding our border control operations, not the government's largesse. The net border cost to taxpayers, notionally, for our three border agencies in 2011-12 — taking into account other service related incomes, currently represented and administered in own source income within the budget, and for things such as the visa application charges and the charges and fees that are the subject of this bill—was estimated at $2.2 billion. So we are a long way shy of self-funded border agencies in this country.

Over the forward estimates, immigration and citizenship represents the dominant component of our border related expenditure. We should be charging market value and we should be competitive but, at the same time, we must be conscious that there are costs that must be met. In his second reading speech, the minister—who is here with us—admitted that the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge Bill is unashamedly designed to generate revenue, and I hold nothing against him for that goal; that is its purpose, as well as the purposes we have talked about here today. That is a fair enough goal when this revenue is going directly into the government's agency to perform these tasks.

It is estimated and expected the measures proposed in this bill will generate $90 million in revenue of three years. But, as I indicated before, I suspect that this is a very modest figure and has been significantly underestimated. The minister claims that the modelling undertaken by the department confirms that the charge will have minimal impact on the education, tourism and employment sectors and that immigration clients will eliminate the current financial burden that visa labels impose on the Australian taxpayer. On that basis, that the impact is as is claimed, the coalition does not oppose these bills. However, we do look to the committee report continually in terms of how these matters can be managed in practice.

While the coalition supports these measures and whilst the moving towards a user-pays model is undoubtedly important, it is a terrible shame that the revenue raised will be simply overwhelmed by the department's rising costs, courtesy of the government's border protection failures. More than 2,000 people have arrived now since the government handed down its budget just six weeks ago. That is more than three times the rate of arrivals that were estimated in the government's budget.

We also have a new front opening up in terms of border protection issues in the Cocos and Keeling Islands. The establishment and setting up of a facility in the quarantine station, the deployment of additional resources, maritime assets for customs and border protection and the other costs of charter services and matters related to that will only add further to the costs the department is going to face. It is a shame that the $90 million raised from this measure in the three years will be spent in just 90 days to pay for the already budgeted blow-outs for the 2012-13 year. That will be $1.1 million to be paid out each and every day in the next financial year on the government's current budget before they will inevitably have to revise it, compared to the figures that were put before this parliament a year ago. The figures for next year are up $424 million for 2012-13 in terms of what was handed down in the 2011-12 budget. That is $1.1 million each and every day that taxpayers will be paying. So the revenue raised in this measure before us today will be swallowed up in less than 90 days, even though that revenue will be raised over three years, because of the failures of the government's border policies.

More than 19,000 people have arrived since the Labor government decided that it was a good idea to get rid of the solutions imposed by the Howard government that had worked and were working. It is estimated that those 19,000 people have provided around $190 million—that is gross revenue based on the $10,000 per person fee, charge, price or ticket paid for by these individuals which has been confirmed via entry interviews and in evidence before Senate estimates—into the pockets of people smugglers like Captain Emad, and now Captain Ewaz and how ever many more captains are out there in this battalion of people smugglers that are moving onshore. This is the revenue that they are raising courtesy of this government's border policies.

We have seen blow-outs occur in the past and I have no doubt that we will continue to see blow-outs occur, given the rate of arrivals since the budget is three times what was estimated by the government. The existing blow-out of $4.7 billion to date from the last three years will only be added to as the government once again faces up, as they do with every MYEFO, to tell us that it is all going to cost a lot more. In the past year at the portfolio additional estimates there was a blow-out of $866 million. Since those portfolio additional estimates there has been a further blow-out of $840 million, as presented in the budget just six weeks ago. There was a blow-out in those figures also of over $220 million between November when they first considered the papers and the publication and review of those at the additional hearings in the Senate. When it comes to border protection failures, the costs only go in one direction under this government, and that is up. The revenue is taken and put in the pockets of people smugglers like Captain Emad and Captain Emaz under this government. Some of these alleged people smugglers are sail-in fly-out—they are our new SIFO, like Captain Emad. It is estimated they have put in their pockets something in the order of up to $190 million over the last few years.

They will keep arriving and they will keep coming as long as this government is in office and as long as they remain the government that they are. It is not just Labor's failed policies that are a problem on our borders anymore; it is the Labor party themselves that is the pull factor. This Labor government have become their own pull factor for boat arrivals. Their soft-touch reputation has gone global and it has gone viral around the world. That is why we continue to see the arrivals that we see. If the government are serious about saving taxpayers' money and generating efficiencies in the immigration budget then it should adopt good policy not pursue failed policy and untested policy. The coalition's policy has been set out now for over a decade on these matters, but sadly, I fear that any policy this government might seek to introduce on the matter of our borders will fail, because it will be overwhelmed by the enormous pull factor presented by their own presence in office.