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Thursday, 30 November 2000
Page: 20351

Senator BARTLETT (9:41 PM) —I also rise to make a reasonably brief contribution to the debate on the Education Services for Overseas Students Bill 2000 and related legislation. As some may know, I am the Democrats' portfolio holder on immigration and multicultural issues. This legislation crosses over those sorts of issues and education issues, which Senator Stott Despoja, who has just spoken, covers so effectively for the Democrats. For that reason I will not speak extensively on the broader components of the bill. However, there are just a couple of aspects that I thought I would touch on briefly, because those issues in relation to immigration and the immigration department—and, indeed, the immigration department is integrally involved in this particular bill—are of significance.

An interesting thing is that, when people think of immigration and the immigration debate, they tend to think of people migrating to Australia, which is an important issue. But a huge part of the work of the immigration department relates to people who are not migrating to Australia; it relates to tourism visas, visitor visas and student visas. I do not know the numbers off the top of my head, but I imagine they would actually be much larger in number than those who are applying for permanent residency. So, in that sense, in most people's top-of-the-head consciousness, they would not think of those people as migrants or immigration issues, but they are issues that are handled by the immigration department.

Those issues are also relevant to this debate because, in the same way as people who are applying to come here—those who are applying for residency or protection, or those other issues—have a view of Australia and have an engagement with Australia that relates to a very important matter, the same applies to people who are applying in this case for student visas or who have student visas and are in Australia for that purpose. That provides a situation where a person's place of residence is dependent on the department that they are dealing with and the way that they meet the conditions on their visa. It is always important, as part of the components of the operation of these sorts of things, to keep in mind the importance of ensuring that we do not put up too many unnecessary or inappropriate hurdles for people—not just because it makes life difficult for people, but also because of what it means in terms of people's perceptions of Australia: how we relate to, engage with, deal with and treat people from other countries.

As many senators would know, one of the earlier pieces of legislation passed in Australia, when we first became a federation—now nearly 100 years ago—related to immigration issues. The history of immigration law as a whole in Australia is a fascinating study in itself, although it is not a particularly uplifting one, I would have to say. The white Australia policy is a shorthand way of saying that we have a long, ingrained tradition and viewpoint of a hostile attitude towards migrants, towards people outside Australia. Xenophobia is probably a shorthand word to use to describe that. That is not to say that every bill or every measure or every action of government from 1901 to now has been motivated by that. But it is a common thread.

If you look at the legislation, if you look at the restrictions, if you look at the aspects of court judgments and interpretations of the laws, it is a common thread that runs right back to our earliest days—indeed, to pre-Federation. Whilst it is a common line of rhetoric that `the whole world is watching and people notice what is happening in Australia and we have to behave properly or the international community will condemn us', in lots of ways it is easy to think: well, that is just rhetoric and it does not really make a difference. In lots of ways that is true. I am sure the people in the USA or Europe or anywhere else are not thinking every day about what Australia is doing. They are certainly not thinking about what we are doing in this chamber tonight, and I imagine not many people in Australia are, for that matter. But it is also true that it does make a difference. It is hard to measure—it is very incremental—but the cumulative effect of the message we send out to people in terms of how we treat them when we are issuing visas, and when we are enforcing or overseeing their use of those visas, does make a difference. To some extent this has become much clearer to me since I have been in this chamber than before. I have had more opportunity to talk to people from overseas and to groups, commissions and organisations from overseas. They can tell you, and they frequently do, that this is noticed. The things that are done are noticed.

Senator BARTLETT —Senator Paterson is enjoying my contribution so much that she wants me to expand on it further. I am glad to hear that!

Senator Patterson —I just think the Gene Technology Bill is about ready to come back on.

Senator BARTLETT —I am sure that is an indication that the government is taking on board the spirit of the contribution that I am making.

Senator Carr —Indeed; you have persuaded us all!

Senator BARTLETT —I should move all our amendments now and we will get them all through! To get back to the point I am trying to emphasise: it does make a difference. You can never measure how much a particular action has an effect. I am not in any way suggesting that the eyes of the world are upon us as we speak tonight. I do not even think the eyes of anyone in the chamber are upon me as I speak tonight, let alone anyone else. But the cumulative effect of how things that we pass tonight in this chamber are implemented and administered by the government and how they impact on people and organisations around the world does make a difference. You can add that to all the other issues in relation to engagement with the world—globalisation, economics, trade and all those things people talk about all the time—in terms of how important it is to be able to make connections with people in our region and in other parts of the world for economic reasons, for social understanding, for environmental protection and for all sorts of things. Without trying to overplay the significance of what we are doing, I think when you are talking about people coming to Australia, particularly in areas like education—which is about expanding horizons, expanding knowledge and building links in terms of research, industry and understanding of the environment—it is really important that we not be overzealous and that we try to slowly move away from a lot of the tradition of Australia over 100 years and more of being too much a fortress Australia, too xenophobic.

The specific example I would point to in the more thematic contribution I have been making is in terms of the aspect of this bill that deals with the automatic cancellation of student visas. Many of the people who have got student visas may be reasonably well off by certain standards, but some of them are not. A lot of them have made significant financial sacrifices to get here. It is not appropriate to try and build a picture that to come to Australia to study as part of a student visa is some sort of junket that people are on. That is an inappropriate concept to build. People make very significant sacrifices, often at great expense, to come to Australia on a student visa. It is obviously significant in terms of being displaced. I am not saying it is an awful experience; I would hope it is a fabulous experience for them to be in Australia and to study and to be able to get more of an understanding of our way of life and our culture. But for many people it is not as though getting a student visa is just like applying for a drivers licence. It is a significant action to apply for study overseas and to relocate overseas.

The committee report into this aspect of the bill, the automatic cancellation of student visas, said:

The committee accepts that the provisions in relation to automatic cancellation of student visas are reasonable. It is impractical to expect DIMA—

the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs—

to prove that a notice has been received, since students in breach may deliberately avoid postal notices. There are reasonable provisions allowing cancellation to be revoked in bona fide cases.

That was the committee report. The government obviously has a majority on that committee, so that was the government senators' finding. Even in just that paragraph it raises concerns in terms of the issues that I have been talking about. Sure, I suppose it is possible that some students in breach—people who are trying to rort the system and are just pretending to study—may avoid postal notices deliberately so that they do not get caught out. But what about all those that are not doing it deliberately, that are not rorting and that just do not get the notice? These things happen not infrequently in all sorts of areas. In social security, another area I deal with a lot, it happens not infrequently. People do not get notices. People move around—and more so students, particularly students from overseas who have to change from place to place. The postal notice may go to the wrong place. You have to give people a bit of a break. You cannot assume every single person is always a rorter until proven not a rorter. I think that is an appropriate component.

Senator Patterson —We expect them to tell us where they are.

Senator BARTLETT —People should tell people where they are, but it is how quickly they have to and how accurate the department is. There is departmental error, and that is not a criticism of the department. Every department is made up of human beings, and all human beings—even I, I have to confess, which may shock some people—make errors from time to time—

Senator Carr —No!

Senator Herron —That is going too far!

Senator BARTLETT —I am glad to get a vote of confidence from other senators. If someone wishes me to retract that statement, I am willing to think about it. Human error is something that does occur. It is a matter of balance in all these things but it is also a matter of recognising the impacts of what happens when these issues get worked through, which is basically that people get chucked out of the country. That is a reasonably unfriendly thing to do. I do not say that we should never do it. If people are deliberately breaking their visa requirements and not doing what they said they would do, fine, that is what we have got to do. But it is also appropriate to recognise that it is not a light penalty, it is a pretty significant thing to do. People have gone to a lot of expense and through a lot of upheaval to come over here to study and, if we then chuck them out, that is not a minor thing. We need to make sure that we have fair play involved when we are doing it. That is all I am saying. In saying that I am not accusing the department or anyone else of not doing it. People like Senator Carr, who I know has been following these issues assiduously, would probably say we are giving them too much of an even break to date, and that may well be true.

Senator Carr —On the contrary, I say `Go after the crook providers who are owners of colleges.'

Senator BARTLETT —Indeed. We have not been doing enough, as Senator Carr has been saying for a long time, to go after people who are exploiting things and are given too much of an easy ride. I am not in any way suggesting that we should overplay the other aspect and make it so easy for people that they can keep rorting things. But it is a concern that we do not undercut fair play, natural justice or whatever phrase you wish to use, in relation to things such as cancellation of visas.

Representatives from international student organisations expressed concerns in the committee hearings about the provisions of the bill providing for automatic cancellation of student visas. The department in effect is being allowed to do what no other law enforcement agency is allowed to do. Serving of notices should require a notice to be served. A notice of a cancellation of visa is not a parking ticket; it is a reasonably significant thing. It is special pleading in the extreme to say that a majority of students will seek to deliberately avoid a notice. You are talking about providing people with notice—that is why it is called a notice—so that they have the opportunity to respond to the allegations or the issue that is raised as part of a notice being served. To make it automatic in a way that is so tight that it reduces that opportunity I think is a dangerous thing to do. It is dangerous not just in terms of the impact on those individual people, because it is not a minor thing to chuck people out of the country, but also in terms of the message it sends to the wider global community. I am not suggesting that we have to be a soft touch to make sure we do not upset anybody. We can be as firm and clear as you like, but I think we have to be fair. One of the better things about Australia is that we have that tradition of a fair go. It is interesting to put some of the positive things Australia has done, like the Australian tradition of the fair go, alongside some of the negative traditions I have been speaking about in terms of immigration such as Fortress Australia and White Australia policies. It is important that when we consider these issues we make sure we get a balance. It is an issue of concern to the Democrats both in terms of the individuals who may be affected and in terms of some of those broader principles of multiculturalism and recognition of the importance of engaging positively with the global community. That reinforces the concerns that I have expressed this evening.