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Minister believes that steps need to be taken to improve the degraded migrant alert system which has allowed criminals to enter Australia on visitors' visas

PETER THOMPSON: The Federal Government wants to tighten up procedures to allow people to enter Australia on visitors' visas and to give the Government more control over who they let in and who they can ask to leave. The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, returned home early from overseas last week to prepare new legislation, as a matter of urgency, to deal with issues arising out of the recent cases, like the convicted US plane hi-jacker, Lorenzo Ervin. Ervin's entry into Australia follows the case of five Korean criminals who also managed to get visas despite the supposedly stringent conditions to keep people of bad character out. The Opposition has called for a public inquiry into the breakdown of the visa entry system.

The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, joins us now and he's talking to Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Philip Ruddock, you came back early to conduct an immediate review of Australia's entry visa procedures and the legislation that governs it. Briefly, what's wrong suddenly, with our visa entry system?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, there were a number of changes made by the former government in the two areas that are relevant, the first in relation to facilitating visits, particularly by tourists, to Australia, and the development of what is known as the electronic travel authority. And we've proceeded with those developments but, coupled with them, was the need to ensure that our ability to identify those people of concern was up to date and appropriate to the new age in which people were going to be handled fairly quickly through a relatively automatic process.

Now, the migrant alert list is an important aspect of that. At the time, it was fairly obvious that it needed to be upgraded and the new government provided the resources for the upgrading of the migrant alert system in the recent budget. What's needed, of course, is to identify when particular difficulties arise as have occasioned a couple of times now. These are not new factors; they've always been there; but the identification of people in that migrant alert system is an important prerequisite to determining whether or not you will further question people or whether or not you will ask those of concern not to enter Australia.

You mentioned a couple of Koreans that entered Australia-in fact, three of them. The records of concern hadn't been made known to us by the police so they weren't known to us before they came. In relation to the other two, they were known to us and we were able to remove them at the point at which they sought to enter Australia.

FRAN KELLY: So there are two problems here: one is the actual alert system. The other problem, though, seems to be what powers the Government has to remove people who may get in who the Government doesn't think should be there. I mean, that's as I understand, what you're going to deal with. You've already introduced one Bill into Parliament which limits the scope for migrants and refugees to appeal and the courts they can appeal to. Will you consider similar legislation for people denied entry visas?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, two matters that I am looking at relate, first, to the question of where the burden of proof lies, and the Government's view is that we ought to go back to the provisions that existed before change was made by the previous government where the responsibility lies upon a person entering Australia to show that they are of good character rather than the Government having to prove that somebody is in fact of bad character.

FRAN KELLY: But Minister, if I can just pick you up there, what does that actually mean? How does someone prove they are of good character?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, usually, it is by establishing that they're not known to relevant authorities in their home country, and at the moment, that onus is on the Government to produce evidence to show that somebody is of bad character rather than people having to produce evidence that would substantiate that they are of good character.

FRAN KELLY: And is that the end of the definition? I mean, in this case, we've just been looking at the case of Lorenzo Ervin, the convicted plane hi-jacker-I mean, he's been in the country for two weeks; he's caused no trouble. I mean, is he a threat to anyone? Is it an issue that he is automatically of bad character?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I don't intend to talk about Mr Ervin because his matter is, at the moment, one to which further consideration may be given as to whether he is entitled to remain here, and if that arises, I might be the person who has to consider that question, so it is quite inappropriate of me to talk about it.

But looking at the broader issue, of course we have numbers of people here who have proven to be of concern to the Government where the determination was not made by the government of the day as to whether they should be able to remain in Australia, but by administrative tribunals. And our concern is that when offences of a major character are involved, the law ought to provide a certain outcome rather than leaving it open to a range of authorities to say: there are factors in this case which we think might lead to a different outcome.

FRAN KELLY: So you're saying that there should be more hard and fast rules. Is that right?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I'm looking at whether or not there should be, in relation to a certain level of offence, a mandatory outcome that would lead, automatically, to deportation rather than a situation in which all offences, at the moment, can be the subject of review.

FRAN KELLY: And in terms of the current government powers, does the Government currently have enough powers to detain and deport someone like, for instance, Lorenzo Ervin? If they tried a week or so ago and they were unable to, do you have enough powers there?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, it's obvious, and as I said, I don't want to talk about the particular case which may be the subject of consideration by myself, but it's obvious that there are serious-people have committed serious offences, both in Australia and outside Australia, who have been able to use the process by which you do appeal to maintain their presence in Australia in circumstances where I think the Australian community would be of a view that they should no longer be here.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, finally and very briefly, is it your view that the Government mishandled the issue of the arrest of Lorenzo Ervin, given that he then was released?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I think it's quite implicit in what I've said that it's my view that the system that we've been left with was one which had been significantly degraded over time, and that there are steps that need to be taken. And what I would hope the Opposition would be about is giving the Government support in relation to remedying these matters rather than taking cheap political shots about the way in which the issue was handled with a legislative regime that is inadequate.

FRAN KELLY: Philip Ruddock, thank you very much.

PETER THOMPSON: And Philip Ruddock is the Immigration Minister, of course. He was talking there to Fran.