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Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Page: 5888

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (12:44 PM) —I wish to sum up on behalf of the government. I think it is fair to say that most of this debate has been characterised by a rerun of the hysteria that occurred around the time of the Tampa arrival and the Howard government’s use of fear of refugees in the political context. Very little focus has been on the actual bill.

Senator Cormann —How many boats over the last 15 months? How many boats?

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator Cormann, you have had your go. You stand by your Hansard; you stand by your record on this matter. You have had your go.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order! Minister, please direct your remarks through the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —What you have done, along with Senator Bernardi and other Liberal senators, is stake out your position, and that is fine. You have learnt nothing, you have not moved on at all from those rather unfortunate debates and the vilification of individuals seeking our protection. You and Senator Bernardi have achieved one thing in this debate: you have managed to put Pauline Hanson back at the centre of the political debate. The remnants of the Noel Crichton-Brown faction and the hard right in South Australia continue to peddle these untruths and the vilification of people seeking our protection. Quite frankly, I think you are irrelevant in the debate. But I want to—

Senator Cash —People of Australia don’t. People in Western Australia don’t.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senators, would you please cease the interjections and comments across the chamber. Minister, address your remarks through the chair.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —We will see what the people of Australia think, as we did at the last election. I think the people of Australia have actually moved on.

Senator Cormann —Not in Western Australia, did they?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Cormann! I just asked you to cease interjecting. Would you please do so for at least some time.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —This typifies what concerns me about this debate. I had hoped that we had moved on. For a while the Liberal Party, post the election, had. I do not want to focus on those contributions, other than to say that they contributed nothing to the debate. I appreciate that the spokesman, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, did address the bill and tried to construct an argument around that. I appreciate the contributions of Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding, who have sought to deal with the issues on this.

What the government and I are trying to do here is have a rational policy debate based on evidence and our history on this legislation and the application of this policy. Unfortunately, we immediately fall back into the old debate we have in Australian politics about boat people et cetera, and the fear of arrivals, when in fact this bill has very little to do with these issues. Under the previous government, more than 90 per cent of those who arrived, including those sent to Nauru and Manus Island, were found to be refugees, and the previous government did not collect any detention debt from them. This bill is not about boat people.

Senator Fielding, I will come to your argument in a minute, but you quite rightly make the point that you do not think that this policy was an appropriate way to treat those found to be owed our protection. Your record on that is a good one and I recognise that. But this debate is not actually about them. The hysteria that is sought to be generated is misplaced. What we want is a serious debate. This is about tackling an issue seriously, recognising that we have had experience of this provision on detention debts since 1992.

We have a long history on this. It was introduced by Labor. It was not, as has been claimed, introduced as a deterrent. Look at the second reading speech. We are the only country in the world that has sought to collect debts from people held in detention for immigration matters. None of the other Western democracies do it. We do not do it for criminals. Senator Fielding made a debating point earlier about people who have committed a crime. It is an interesting point, Senator Fielding. It is not that you go to immigration detention for that. If you are a mass murderer or a rapist, we do not charge you for the time you spend in prison, but, if you get out of prison and we are about to deport you, we will run up a charge against you for immigration detention.

Just to deal with the deterrent value, first of all it has been widely accepted that people do not know about these conditions; it is not a factor in their decision. But, if you were focusing on unauthorised arrivals, you would focus on the fact that since 1992 15,000 people have arrived as unauthorised boat arrivals, so as a deterrent it is clearly not working as well as we would have hoped. If you throw in visa overstayers, which would be in the tens of thousands, it has not deterred them. If you throw in air arrivals, which would be in the tens of thousands, it has not deterred them. So it is a nonsense to pretend this is a deterrent. It is just a nonsense. People have no knowledge of it and it has not acted as a deterrent at all.

The second point to make very clearly is that we do not collect it. We actually collect three per cent of what we levy. It just has not been working. The previous government recognised this and stopped collecting the money, except from a very small subset of people, and I will come to that in a minute. It has not worked. Today we have been asked to keep the legislation as it is, to keep the principle—whatever that is—even though after 17 years of experience we know it has not worked. It has not deterred anyone and we have not collected the money. We certainly have not collected the money from the people we removed to overseas—they were a very tiny proportion of the debt collected—because they have no obligation to pay. So it is not a deterrent and we have not collected the money.

It actually costs Australian taxpayers more to run the scheme than is collected. Last year it cost us $350,000 or so to run a scheme that does not work. On any evidence based assessment, on any rational public policy debate, you would not do it. Why wouldn’t you spend that $350,000 in a better way? Again, on the questions of value for money and rational public policy, you would not do it.

If you examine the history of this and its review by sane, sensible people, you can point to a series of reports by the government and by colleagues in the Senate and in the House of Representatives that have consistently said it does not work, it is not appropriate, it is punitive, it is unfair and it ought to be repealed. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2006 made criticisms of its punitive effect. The various United Nations Human Rights Committee reports have focused on it as being punitive and unfair. Most recently, last December the Joint Standing Committee on Migration unanimously recommended that the government introduce this legislation as a priority. A joint parliamentary committee of this parliament, with all the opposition members on it, unanimously requested that the government bring this bill in. I am being criticised by some for responding to a unanimous call from a joint parliamentary committee, represented by all sides of the parliament, that we bring in a bill to deal with this. They looked at it and said it was unfair, it was irrational and it ought to end.

Not only that, but I understand that the shadow spokesperson, Dr Sharman Stone, took a recommendation to the Liberal Party shadow cabinet to support the abolition of this measure. For whatever reason, the conservatives inside the Liberal Party had a win. The recommendation that came out of that meeting was against supporting the bill. So the shadow spokesperson herself, who was a member of the committee that recommended we bring the bill in, took that position to the shadow cabinet and was rolled. Unfortunately, we have the position where the Liberal opposition have decided to oppose this bill, despite the views of Mrs Danna Vale, Mr Petro Georgiou, Senator Alan Eggleston and, of course, their own spokesperson.

I do not want to spend a lot of time talking about why they took this decision or whether they saw some sort of political opportunity in having a rerun of the anti-refugee debates of the early part of this century. What we do know is that all the inquiries into this policy have confirmed the lack of any deterrent value, the lack of fairness and the unfair impact it has on those who have debts levied against them—and have called for us to repeal the legislation. The government has sought to do that.

The arguments are all there. They were set out in the second reading speech. I will not go through them all again, but, as I say, it has failed as a scheme. Whatever one’s views about it, the evidence is that it has failed as a scheme and that it has caused great distress to a range of people who have repaid some of their debts.

This takes me to Senator Fielding’s point. I appreciate his motives. Even though we had an exchange across the chamber last night, I will try to explain why he is wrong—not in his sentiment but in practice. I think you are wrong, Senator Fielding. It effectively goes like this. The debts of people who are found to be refugees are wiped off. Even John Howard when he was at the height of his anger and attack on refugees did not collect that money. We will put that to one side—it is a non-issue. I have never claimed that this legislation is about those people; it has never been about them. We have another set of people, whom you are concerned about, who overstay their visas and then have to be removed from the country after being detained. The vast majority of overstayers are actually removed without being detained, and we encourage that. We try to get them to go home without banging them up in Villawood—(1) because it costs money and (2) because there is a nicer way of doing it, saying, ‘Look, mate, it’s time you went home.’ A lot of them are British backpackers who are having such a good time in Sydney that they forget to go home. A lot of them are ordinary tourists who are partying and decide that they want a couple of extra weeks and their visas expire.

But the ones we tend to remove from Australia are those we take into detention. The reality is that, once they are removed, they never pay the debt. Why would you pay the debt if you have been removed? If you get a bill from the Australian department of immigration in the mail saying, ‘Please send us a cheque for $10,000 to pay for your detention costs,’ and you are back in Brazil or wherever, I think you would say, ‘I’ve got better things to do with my money. Why would I bother?’

Regarding Senator Fielding’s concern, the debt for removal is not affected by this bill. People removed still have a debt to the Commonwealth. So, regarding his concern about those people being able to come back into the country, and them not receiving a penalty for their failure to obey the visa conditions, those provisions remain. The removal debt is not affected by this bill. For a whole range of reasons it was easier for us to seek to remove detention debt, and there are a range of legal arguments about why all that should occur. But, regarding your major concern, someone who is removed involuntarily from Australia will maintain a debt for the cost of their removal, and that will impact on their capacity to come back into Australia. They have a PIC 4001 bar to the granting of a further visa and, as a consequence, a bar on re-entry to Australia. Those who go voluntarily, and do the right thing after having overstayed their visas by a couple of weeks, will have their visa history examined before they can come back in.

As I say, quite frankly, a lot of the overstayers are really not a problem. They are not criminals; they are just people who have overstayed, often by a day or two and sometimes by a couple of weeks. But the department has the capacity to deal with any further visa application with that immigration history in mind. If we think they have been of bad character, they could have a visa cancelled or they could be barred—we can make a judgment on their history. But, as I say, we know that we basically do not successfully collect any debt. We collect less than three per cent of the debt.

Coming to the nub of what this bill is really about—and this is particularly in response to Senator Fielding—the people this bill impacts on are the people who are given permission to stay legally in Australia but did not get a refugee or humanitarian visa. They might have got a spouse visa or another type of visa, largely as a result of intervention by the minister—Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone or me—who has said: ‘On assessing your case, even though you were found not to be a refugee, you are entitled to stay in Australia. We grant you a visa to stay legally.’ Having decided that these people are legally allowed to stay in Australia, this policy imposes a debt on them that impacts on their capacity to get on with their life in Australia.

The most moving examples are often of people who were locked up in Baxter for two or three years, were given a visa by a former Liberal minister—they were found to be entitled to a visa in Australia—and married an Australian citizen. Some of them have debts of $250,000. They cannot buy a home and they cannot get on with their lives because they have a debt of $250,000. Some of their debts are smaller but some people have huge debts. These people are legally in Australia, often married to an Australian citizen, with Australian citizen kids, who have this burden on them. This burden on them is causing mental health issues, it is causing financial pressures and it is impacting on their ability to get on with their lives. Those are the people we are concerned about. Those are the people who are affected.

Whether someone notionally living overseas has a debt, quite frankly, is neither here nor there; it is these people, permanent residents of Australia, often married to Australian citizens, often on a pathway to citizenship themselves—some of them will now be Australian citizens—who have this pressure on them. These are people who are integrated into the Australian community. They might have been given a visa because they have Australian citizen kids. They might have been given a visa because of humanitarian considerations, because of their age or because of their disability. They might have had a complementary protection claim such as fear of being returned to a country where they might be subject to the death penalty or where they might be subject to female genital mutilation. They are not refugees but are owed our protection. Currently they are picked up in this group. It could be someone who has been granted a visa because she fears going back to a country where she may be forced to have compulsory female genital mutilation. You say, despite the government of the day saying she is entitled to a legal visa, she has a debt for her detention and we are going to punish her, even though we said she could legally stay. It is a nonsense; it has always been a nonsense. It needs to be changed. That is why it needs to be changed. This is the group of people whom this change will benefit.

Equally it is for a whole range of other people who are found to be eligible for a visa—most of them granted by a minister of the Crown. These people are legally here, they have settled here, they are staying here and we are saddling them with a debt. If you meet some of these people, you will understand the pressure that places on them. Many of them, I would argue, were detained in a way that should never have occurred and which I think people like Senator Fielding have agreed should never have occurred. Many people had long-term detention in really difficult circumstances—the people who were sewing up their lips and jumping off buildings. What we are saying is, ‘As if that experience wasn’t enough, even though we have recanted, if you like, and said you can have a visa to remain, we are going to keep on punishing you.’ Quite frankly, it is not good public policy; it is not humane policy. Senator Fielding, it is not the Australian thing to do, in my view. I am happy to argue this anywhere in Australia. This is not good policy. It has terrible, unfair consequences. Everyone who has looked at it, every parliamentarian who has been involved in a committee who has looked at it, has said that it ought to go. All the international bodies, all the human rights groups, say it ought to go. There is a good reason why this bill ought to be carried and why this detention debt regime ought to be abolished. I think some of the concerns that you have had, Senator Fielding, are addressed by it.

In conclusion, I appreciate the contribution of Senator Troeth. I have always had a great deal of respect for her. We are of the same class. But I also understand how difficult this is for people. I appreciate the fact that four of her colleagues did a similar thing in the House of Representatives. I have not sought to take any political advantage of it because I know how difficult that is for people. I know it reflects a deeply held view about justice and fairness in these matters. I welcome the decision but I do appreciate how difficult it is. I think it is important that we send the message as a parliament that this is not an appropriate way for Australia to respond.

I thank senators for their contributions to the debate—well, I thank some of them; I think others really do need to have a look at themselves and ask where their humanity is and whether they are really responding appropriately to people who are often in quite desperate circumstances. I urge the Senate to carry the bill. I will not be supporting Senator Fielding’s amendments, for the reasons I have explained, but I do appreciate the rationale behind his approach. But, obviously we will debate that in the committee stage.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.