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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 6237

Senator CASH (Western Australia) (12:57): On behalf of the coalition I 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.

These bills were referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration by the House of Representatives Selection Committee on 10 May 2012, because the coalition had some real concerns about the modelling that had been used and the lack of detail provided by the government to explain the modelling. We also required clarification about whether there would be any unintended consequences in relation to access to education and Medicare entitlements to visa holders.

The committee, of which I am a member, has now completed its report, which largely addressed the issues that the coalition had raised. As set out in the tabled report, the Selection Committee and members of the Migration Committee questioned the scale of the proposed charges, the projected revenue to be raised and whether the electronic Visa Entitlement Verification Online, VEVO, system would effectively replace the need for hardcopy evidence of visas.

The committee conducted its inquiry by seeking formal responses to a number of questions on notice to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The list of questions asked is contained in the appendix to the committee's report and generally dealt with issues such as the following. Given that the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge Bill 2012 imposes a visa evidence charge, we were keen to understand the current process for the issuing of hardcopy visa evidence and the nature of the evidence that is to be provided on request. We were also keen to better understand the functions of the VEVO system and the current rate of access by visa holders and third parties.

The committee also sought additional information about the objectives of visa pricing transformation in the context of the department's broader transformation program and the shift to label free travel mentioned in the explanatory memoranda. In relation to visa evidence requests, the committee also noted there were 1.3 million visa labels requested in 2011, with 455,000 of these made onshore. We sought further particulars about these statistics because Australia already utilises the VEVO system. As hardcopy visa evidence is not required by law, we wanted to better understand why the number of onshore requests for visa labels was so high.

In relation to the over 900,000 requests which were made offshore, the committee asked for information concerning what types of institutions or organisations in Australia and overseas might require hardcopy visa evidence and for what purpose. Would schools or educational institutions require such evidence? We also sought further evidence on why the business process based initiatives employed by the department have not been successful in encouraging more clients to use the online visa validation system. The committee also wanted to know whether the department had conducted an impact assessment in Australia and overseas to identify and address potential barriers to participation for particular sectors such as education under the shift to online visa validation. We also sought further information on the factors that influenced the government in arriving at a proposed maximum charge of $250 for a visa label.

In relation to costs and revenue projections, the explanatory memoranda for these bills state that their financial impact will be high with revenue in the order of $90 million to be generated over three years. The committee sought an explanation as to the economic modeling used to arrive at this revenue forecast and whether cost recovery is a major driver for the introduction of the new visa charge. The committee also sought additional information on a range of charges for different categories of visas and clarification on which classes of visa will be exempted and which will attract nil fees.

The committee was satisfied with the department's overall responses. The committee accepted that the main justification for introducing the fees is to encourage visa holders and registered organisations to accept electronic verification alone. This is part of a global transition towards visa label free travel and electronic confirmation of visas. It should be noted that, whilst the committee recommended that the legislation be passed, the committee does believe that the associated explanatory memoranda should be more comprehensive. Accordingly, the committee recommended that the explanatory memoranda be expanded to more clearly explain the policy rationale and costing methodology underpinning the measures contained in these bills and be re-tabled.

The coalition was satisfied with the department's reassurances that the impact on visa holders' access to services will not be compromised. We were pleased to note that humanitarian entrants and some others will be exempt from the fee completely. There will be a differentiated fee structure in place to allow for upward adjustments of the introductory flat fee of $70.

As set out in the explanatory memorandum for the bill, the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge Bill 2012 imposes a charge in relation to requests for evidence of visas. The bill will enable a charge to be payable for the production of prescribed evidence of a visa. The visa evidence charge is designed to encourage clients to reconsider their need to have visa evidence. The visa evidence charge also allows for greater cost recovery in respect of immigration processing and generates additional revenue.

Related measures are contained in the Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012, which will commence on the same day as this bill. The Migration (Visa Evidence) Charge (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2012 makes consequential amendments to the Migration Act 1958 to implement the visa evidence charge and provide a framework within which the visa evidence charge will operate. Further, this bill amends the Migration Act to insert regulation making powers for the Migration Regulations 1994 to prescribe the amount of visa evidence charge that will be payable for each request for evidence of a visa, as well as regulations about matters relating to the visa evidence charge.

The coalition supports a shift in favour of electronic visa handling. In fact, we had a record of this in government. We are pleased to see that the department is actively engaged in plans to promote the uptake of the 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 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.

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 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 noncitizen's right to enter Australia.

The coalition is supportive of the concept of ensuring greater efficiency within the department through the promotion of an online mechanism. These bills signpost an important shift in thinking within the immigration portfolio from hard copy, 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 issued over the 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 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 providing the tools to better manage our borders from a national 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. This is not a figure that the government or this parliament should be proud of.

For many visa categories there is no option to apply electronically. Applications must be done by hard copy. 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 a way forward for border security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility. This approach will yield significant benefits not only for the department but for other agencies as well.

While the coalition supports these measures and the move towards a user-pays model is undoubtedly important, it is a great shame that the revenue raised will be simply overwhelmed by the department's rising costs, courtesy of the government's border protection failures. It would also be remiss of me not to remind senators that the alleged $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 in this portfolio.

If we look at Labor's 2011-12 billion dollar budget for asylum seekers, this figure was based on just 750 boat arrivals for this financial year, a rather ambitious target given that since the election of the Labor government in November 2007, as a direct result of winding back the former Howard government's proven border protection policies, 23,128 people have arrived on 398 boats. On top of that, I do not think I need to remind the Senate that the Australian public recently witnessed one of the greatest political backflips of all time with the Labor government adopting the coalition's policy of offshore processing for asylum seekers.

Labor's mismanagement of the border protection portfolio is a catastrophic policy failure on so many levels, but in particular given the impact on Labor's so-called budget surplus. So while the coalition does support these bills, the reality therefore is that 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 protection policies.