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Wednesday, 6 June 2001
Page: 27491


Mr RIPOLL (11:43 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001 and I do so with some caution. On the surface these amendments appear to be a responsible method of rectifying anomalies within the Migration Act in accordance with the Criminal Code Act of 1995. As both the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Mr Ruddock, and my colleague the member for Bowman have indicated in their speeches, the amendments being recommended today are straightforward housekeeping matters that make the implementation of legislation effective and equitable. Unfortunately, I am not as confident in this government's intentions with other elements of migration as I am in this bill that we are discussing today.

It is interesting to note that the minister's comments in his second reading speech on this bill are fairly dry and certainly brief comments on the legislation. The minister considers that the bill harmonises offence provisions in migration legislation in several ways.He uses the word `harmonises'. It is not very often that you could consider references to the Migration Act or the process of migration as in any factor a harmonious process. There would not be too many people who have dealt with the migration officials in Australia or offshore that would say how well departmental information and advice harmonises with the accurate length of application processing or the true manner and method of an applicant's consideration.

I have spoken many times in this place about the problems of migration and unauthorised arrivals to Australia. I consider myself a vocal opponent of many government practices in this arena. While work in my electorate office may reflect the nature of the immigration problems facing individual constituents, I have an underlying interest in the development of overall responsible and effective migration policy. By `responsible' I mean that fundamental basic human rights are monitored and implemented within policy.

An effective migration policy means that, when you have a mandatory unauthorised detention law, you recognise and accommodate the needs of individuals and families. In my view, the criminalisation of detainees has now become government policy. The riots and problems within the centres in recent months are a demonstration of the failings of the system and, in particular, of the detention process itself—a process by which unauthorised arrivals in this country go through a processing phase of determining who they are and why they are here. That is at the heart of why we are debating part of this bill. On a number of fronts, I believe the problem is in the government's approach and attitude, and certainly in the management of the centres themselves. There is no doubt that ACM—the people who have the contract for managing these centres—have failed. In my view, they have failed dismally in managing these centres in a responsible and fair manner. The riots that we have seen have been precipitated by the problems of management and government policy. This whole process is not just people protesting about and opposing what is going on in these centres—and we do not know what actually happens in these centres all of the time, because access to accurate information is very difficult.

At the moment, certain issues are being brought before the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. One of those issues is the upgrading of the security fences at Port Hedland. I want to speak briefly about this issue because I think it relates in particular to how we talk about criminality and the criminalisation of detainees in Australia. The detention centre at Port Hedland has a reasonable amount of security to hold detainees. There is always going to be a case where there might be a criminal element—in any community or group, you will always find a criminal element somewhere. So it is not a case of saying that they are all criminals, but there will always be some.

I have been to this centre and, in my view, the security is adequate. It is not how high the fence is or how sharp the razor wire is, it is the management of the centres, the policies and the people that make the difference as to whether or there are riots—it is not the ordinary families, it is not the people that I saw there such as the 12-year-old children and the mums and dads. It is not those people. If there is a criminal element, we need to deal with it at that level.

A proposal is currently before the migration committee to erect a new fence at that centre at a cost of around $3.2 million. The new fence is an unbelievable, over-the-top, waste of money. It is something that you would see in a fictional film on the security needs in a maximum security prison. It has razor wire, an outer fence, an inner fence, a no-go zone, a no-dig area and security cameras. The drawings of this fence show something that you might expect to be built for hardened criminals—the worst of the worst. It is a compound within a compound. This is what the government and the department are putting forward for detainees. Those people have come here, they are not criminals and yet they are being treated like criminals.

I have a problem with the way this bill deals with it and I have a problem with the attitude of the government in relation to these issues. When you start treating people like criminals, you will get a criminal element coming out. Building this fence at the Port Hedland centre is completely wrong. I acknowledge that the minister is here, and I assure him that I will be fighting to ensure that that fence is not erected. It is an absolute waste of taxpayers' money. That money could be used in better processing, in better management and maybe in getting some decent people working in those places to look after the detainees and get them through the whole process.

Let us assess people's status. Let us not delay this process. Let us assess them when they arrive. Let us find out whether they should or should not be deported, but let us do it in a humane way. Let us do it in a way that does not give us the riots and the protests, and that does not criminalise people. Let us use a process that will make it much easier to get to the end result. The end result is the goal, and that is to decide whether we give people refugee status or asylum seeker status, or deport those who obviously have no right to be here. I am not soft on this issue in terms of those who have a right to be here and those who do not. To me, it is just a clear-cut case of shortening the processing period. Let us spend money where it should be spent. Let us not split up families in these centres. Let us do everything properly.



Mr RIPOLL —I certainly never condone violence. Once there is violence, we have to take some action, but I think that in our own processes we have to make sure that we are doing the right thing. As I said, this bill reflects an attitude and a style of government. That is what it is about. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the infamous Shane Stone memo was its image of the government being mean and tricky. That applies in many portfolios and, while I will not say that I think the minister is mean and tricky, certainly there are elements in the portfolio that are. If you talk to people who have to deal with the process, the same problems always come up—the trickiness in how the system works, the delays and the bureaucratic inefficiencies.

In the speeches on the previous migration legislation, members talked about electronic methods of processing. This gets back to the trickiness of how these things work. People say that there needs to be efficiency because efficiency will make things better. No, it will not. Efficiency does not make things better. Who is it supposed to make things efficient for? Is it efficient for the department, which wants to remove itself from the process? Is it efficient for the minister, who perhaps does not want to have to deal with this personally? Is it efficient when the system fails and people have to start all over again and go through review processes and further reviews, and assessments and reassessments? This is not efficiency; it is just putting more blocks in their way. It is making the system more complex. There is always this talk of efficiency. Efficiency is code for `removing responsibility'—


Mr Ruddock —Rubbish! Talk about the bill.


Mr RIPOLL —It is not rubbish. Efficiency is not about making things better for people; it is about removing responsibility. While often on the surface these bills look straightforward and purport to be in the best interests of those that they are supposed to serve, I think that, under the guise of efficiency and making things better, they actually make situations much more difficult.

Migration can mean, for many people, being forced to wait months beyond what would be termed reasonable processing times. Migration can be tricky because, when an application gets to a final assessment stage, supporting documentation can be deemed out of date, or a cap can be slapped on it and applications left pending for another 12 months. These little problems always creep in. In my office—and I am sure it happens in many other offices around the country—we end up having to be the pseudo department, as it were, sorting out the problems ourselves. If we can sort them out and if we can help people through the process, then why can't the process be better to start with? If people automatically have to come to us because they know they cannot go anywhere else, then there is a problem in the system.

This is where my concerns arise—and it is not just in the area of migration. I will be fair to other ministers in this government and say that their departments are just as bad. For example, the same problems arise with Centrelink. An attitude now exists amongst departmental officers, government and ministers whereby they remove themselves from the process so much that it is now automatic within the departments to say, as soon as there is a problem, `We do not deal with it here. Go and see your federal members. They will sort it out.' And we do sort the problems out. My question is, `Why do we have to do it?' If we can sort the problems out, then why can't the departmental officials do it? Why can't the department do it? Why does it have to go through this extra loop of `efficiency' so that these people can be dealt with in a proper and humane manner? And, of course, they are not. These are the issues at stake. This is what, to me, determines the differences between our country and other countries. These are very important differences.

Certainly I am very acutely aware of the problems that Australia could face. I am not a proponent of opening the floodgates, to use the terminology, because I do not believe in that. There are many parts of unauthorised entrance, illegal immigration and those other terms. There are some real issues in terms of how we manage all of that, but I think it still has to be done in an open and accountable manner. This leads me on to a very important point about detention and criminality.

In Queensland at the moment, there is some money budgeted—about $52.6 million—for two centres. One is in the Brisbane greater area and one is in Darwin. I particularly want to make a couple of comments about the Brisbane one which, by the way, includes my electorate and includes Ipswich and that greater area. I believe there is a proposal for a 550-bed detention facility to be built. The government talks about consultation, and I notice some comments in the media from certain Liberal members about consultation and how important it is to the whole process. What I am concerned about is: why do we need one at all? I made a few phone calls and inquired as to how many detainees we currently have—these unauthorised entrance arrivals. I am hard up to find about a dozen in Queensland. There are different figures but they do not range too greatly from eight here right now, or last week, or how many we are supposed to get. It is very small in number, and certainly there is no need for 550 beds. Arthur Gorrie currently has a 24-bed detainee unit, which is not at capacity. So does the need just immediately arise? How are you going to fill these 550 places?

What concerns me is the government's agenda in this. My fear is that this is not something for Queensland but that Queensland, particularly my region, would be used as a dumping ground to shift problems from other areas—perhaps from Woomera, Port Hedland and from other states—and that there would be this mobile policy in relation to detainees. That is certainly something that I think no Queenslander would want.

Surprisingly and coincidentally enough, while articles were appearing on the front page of my local newspaper, within a week nine people were suddenly found to be working illegally just outside my electorate—in Ipswich, in the electorate of Blair. These people were found to be in breach of their visas and, basically, were overstayers.


Mr Sercombe —Does Cameron Thompson want it in his electorate of Blair?


Mr RIPOLL —No. I believe that people in the electorate of Blair have made it quite clear that they do not want the centre in their electorate either.


Mr Sciacca —Perhaps Peter Slipper might have it in his electorate.


Mr RIPOLL —Perhaps Peter Slipper would like it in his electorate. I wanted to make the comment here that the federal member for Blair, Cameron Thompson, said that Ipswich was not likely to be considered because the opposition had already been signalled, and there he refers to the opposition from the community. I think that is a fantastic way of making policy. While on the one hand the department is ringing up real estate agents saying, `Get us a site,' on the other hand the local Liberal member for Blair, Cameron Thompson, is saying, `No, because there has been some opposition in the community, it is not going to go ahead'. That is how it works. What I would question is: where was the consultation process? When was there consultation with the community? Where was the stakeholders' interest? Perhaps they were talking to local government, talking to state government or talking to some local representatives, such as me, as to why we actually need to spend $52.6 million at all or whether this is where the money is best spent.

I have some grave concerns, and my concerns go further in terms of the approximately 50,000 overstayers currently in Australia. There are about 50,000 people, and these people are in breach of their visa requirements. For the most part, they are British citizens who have overstayed.


Mr Ruddock —That is not right. Look at the figures.


Mr RIPOLL —For the majority, but there are a number of others from other countries as well. We have this problem which, I have to say, largely goes unnoticed, unspoken of and untouched in terms of doing something about this.


Mr Ruddock —That is wrong.


Mr RIPOLL —I have questioned the department many times on this, and I have received unsatisfactory answers—


Mr Ruddock —It is the first time you have raised it with me.


Mr RIPOLL —Then I will raise it with you now. According to the department, there are currently about 50,000 overstayers in Australia who are in breach of their visa requirements.


Mr Ruddock —There are 58,000.


Mr RIPOLL —It is 58,000—thank you, Minister, for updating that figure. So we have a significant problem in terms of those who breach their visa requirements. Yet very little attention is paid to that problem in comparison with the attention paid to the more minor problem of the building of detention centres, the criminalisation of detainees and detention itself as a root problem. Attention needs to be paid overseas to stemming the flow of those who want to come here by means other than traditional ones. There have been cases of people staying here for up to a decade in breach of their visa requirements. It seems that the government thinks that this issue is not as important as that of detention centres—which might be more palatable in the media and likely to get more front pages. I cannot see any reason why the issues of detention centres and detainees are causing such a riot across this country, other than that this government is using those issues to gain political benefit and media attention. The government can always say that it is being tough on those issues that it thinks will get votes from people who like to see the government being tough on illegal immigrants, migrants and boat people.

However, there are a lot of people who actually do not see it that way. They see a lot of unfairness, a lot of inequity and a lot of danger in their communities. Members of the Port Hedland community do not support what is going on there; they do not support ACM, the management of these centres; and they do not support the policies behind the cause of these problems. This hinges on why we need a judicial review. We need to look at this whole problem very seriously, and we need to look at the root cause of the problem, rather than pushing the problem onto those who did not create it in the first place.

I have a whole range of concerns in a number of areas about: what is being proposed in Queensland; the way we detain people; the management of these centres; the way that people are being criminalised; the way that families are being split up; possible breaches of human rights in Australia; and comments made in reports by the United Nations on human rights abuses in Australia. This does not bode well for the government in terms of their approach, style, and, in essence, being mean and tricky. You can be mean and tricky and get away with it for a little while, but you will not get away with it forever. People know what is going on in terms of these policies. This approach is not making things better for the people who should be the focus of these policies. Rather, it is making it harder for them. It is less efficient, not more efficient. It is making it worse. I support the bill before us, but I look forward to the day when we can make some real changes to benefit people who are currently held in detention for way too long and make their lives a bit better. (Time expired)