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Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Page: 1166

Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital TerritoryMinister Assisting for Industry and Innovation, Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Sport) (17:59): It is my pleasure to sum up this debate and I thank all senators for their contributions. The Migration Amendment (Reform of Employer Sanctions) Bill 2012 amends the Migration Act 1958 to implement the government's response to the independent report, entitled Report of the 2010 review of the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Act 2007, conducted by the independent legal expert Mr Stephen Howells—the subject of some discussion through the course of this debate. Mr Howells found that the employer sanctions framework was wholly ineffective as a deterrent against a number of employers and labour intermediaries who persist in allowing the referral of non-citizens to work without required permissions.

This bill, if passed, will amend the criminal offences and create new, non-fault, civil penalty provisions for persons who allow an unlawful noncitizen to work, refer an unlawful noncitizen to a third person for work, allow a lawful noncitizen to work in breach of a work related visa condition or refer a lawful noncitizen to a third person for work in breach of a work related visa condition.

In order to address the illegal practices of sham contracting, informal labour hire and the use of illegal workers by various entities within a conglomerate, the application of the criminal offences and civil penalty provisions will be broadened so that a person who participates in the chain of events that results in a noncitizen being allowed or referred to work without the required permission can be held liable for contravening the work related offences and work related provisions. The bill will also introduce new investigation powers to allow authorised officers to gather evidence of suspected breaches of the work related offences and work related provisions. This bill does not, as some of the senators opposite would have people believe, create a new requirement on business, create any further obligations on business, or create any red tape for business that does not already exist. It is all about providing the Department of Immigration and Citizenship with the necessary tools to make sure that people who are working illegally, and employers who are hiring illegally, can be dealt with effectively under the law. This set of measures was recommended by the Howard government many years ago—and it was rejected by the Howard government.

This government commissioned Mr Stephen Howells to review the act and he made a series of recommendations which this bill reflects. The Howells review goes through the very serious issue of illegal work in Australia. It goes through some of the links to organised crime. It goes through some of the exploitation and underpayment of workers that occurs. Illegal work in Australia is an extremely serious issue. And it is very true that it is a very small minority of employees and employers who engage in this—but, nevertheless, it must be treated seriously. The government announced that we would introduce new laws to crack down on the hiring of illegal workers because we recognise that illegal work is a problem, because it undermines the integrity of the migration program and leads to the exploitation of vulnerable workers in the reduction of job opportunities for Australians and permanent residents—all extremely valid and important reasons.

This is an opposition which likes to talk tough when it comes to so-called illegal immigration and an opposition that goes out there and beats its chest, when it suits it, about certain forms of migration. But when you have a frankly much larger number of employees working illegally, whether they be visa overstayers or people working in breach of visa conditions, the opposition is struck dumb. It is nowhere to be seen; in fact, it is opposing this bill, which seeks to stamp out these bad practices and give the department the tools it needs to be able to pursue these issues effectively under the law. In fact, more than being struck dumb, the opposition wilfully opposes the legislation. It is trying to stop the government and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship from having the ability to successfully prosecute employers who wilfully ignore their responsibilities. Checking to see if someone is a legal worker in Australia is not an onerous responsibility; in fact, you would think it is something that ought to be done as a matter of course. The fact is, we know that it is not done as a matter of course for that minority of employers—and that needs to change.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has the VEVO system, which works well and enables employers to check quite easily whether somebody is entitled to work in this country—yet this opposition stands opposed to this bill which makes hiring illegal workers and exploiting illegal workers more difficult for employers by making it easier to prosecute. I want to stress this very clearly because things have been said on the opposite side of the chamber that need to be challenged: there is not one extra piece of red tape, there is not one extra process that employers have to go through in this bill. Just follow the law and do not hire people illegally. That is all we are asking. That is what the law currently says, that is what the law said yesterday and that is what the law will say tomorrow. It is what the law will say after this bill passes the Senate. Yet we still see the opposition opposing this legislation, which I think is hypocrisy at its worst. In fact, we have just witnessed Senator Macdonald standing up and saying there are going to be mountains of new red tape. The fact is that there is no red tape; there is no additional process. Employers are required to abide by the laws as they currently exist.

The opposition are happy to issue press releases on a daily basis about illegal migration to Australia but when it comes to an opportunity to do something about people working illegally in Australia, real illegal migrants who are working in breach of their visa conditions or after their visa has expired, they choose to do nothing. And they choose to do worse than nothing: they choose to oppose this government's bill. The former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship made his summing-up speech to the House on 27 November last year, and the shadow immigration minister said, 'The government will have no problems with us on this bill.' Something changed on the way to Parliament House. We are not sure what changed, but what I am sure of is that that position is illogical and hypocritical, as I have described. It underlines the opposition's cheap and opportunistic approach to all these matters and their complete refusal to engage in matters of substance when it comes to immigration.

The independent review by legal expert Stephen Howes showed that the Howard government's failure to implement an effective penalty regime impeded the ability to take action against employers doing the wrong thing. By introducing this suite of new laws the government is taking actions on recalcitrant employers, employers who do the wrong thing, but also protecting and supporting those employers who have complied and continue to comply with the law. I commend this bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): The question is that the bill be read a second time.