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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 118

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON —I address my question to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Can the minister inform the House of the impact of the changes that the government introduced on 1 July in relation to work rights for people seeking asylum in Australia? Is the Minister aware of any proposal to disallow the regulation? What would be the impact of this disallowance?

Mr RUDDOCK (Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) —I thank the honourable member for his question. I might say that it is welcome to have a sensible and informed question on immigration issues, particularly from the area that the member represents. Like my colleagues, I commend him for his magnificent maiden speech so early in the parliament. I want to take the opportunity to explain to members—and perhaps particularly to members opposite—some of the concerns that I have at the moment about immigration.

At any time we have in the order of 50,000 people unlawfully here. Many of them are overstayers of visits to Australia—sometimes students, and others. Numbers of people make asylum claims in Australia. We regard our international obligations as being serious issues which we have to address, particularly when asylum claims are made. We spend a great deal of money in assessing those claims properly and making considered judgments in relation to them. Unfortunately, numbers of people today seek to remain in Australia simply for the purpose of working—often when they are unlawful. They are involving themselves in many devious ways of achieving that outcome.

At the moment, some 5,000 people are involved in six class actions before the Federal Court challenging immigration status. Most of them are not asylum seekers—let me make that very clear. The numbers are continuing to grow. To give you an idea of the class actions, in one group, 670 people have paid $500 each to legal advisers. You can add that amount up fairly easily—it is in the order of $300,000 to pursue one legal case for a couple of days in court. We have another class action involving 2,900 cases. I do not know what the individual charge is; but, if it is anything like the former, it runs into more than a million and a half dollars.

Why are these people pursuing class actions? They are doing it because it enables them, with delays before the Federal Court of Australia sometimes of a year or more, to access employment. What is happening is that—

Mr Brereton —Why don't you fund the courts?

Mr Beazley —You need more people in the courts.

Mr RUDDOCK —You say that, but let me just say to the Leader of the Opposition: if you are serious about these matters let us understand that the more matters before the courts, the longer they take to deal with. What is happening is that, because there is an advantage in being able to obtain work rights, people are obtaining funds to go into these class actions to further delay the system and to delay us being able to give justice to those who have bona fide asylum claims. We know that they are now seeking to use the intervention power that I have to also delay their removal and to use it as a basis for applying for bridging visas to remain in Australia and to obtain work rights.

I am receiving at the moment on the average 500 cases per month. Most of them are without substance. Those that do have substance will obviously be considered by me with every compassion that can be offered. But let it be clear that the only way we are able to remove this sore is to remove the opportunity from those who have already had their cases considered by my department, by the Refugee Review Tribunal, perhaps the Immigration Review Tribunal and often by the courts already, because these involve multiple applications. Single cases have been rejected. The removal of this employment opportunity is the only way in which we are going to be able to remove this sore. I lament very much that the Australian Democrats are moving to repeal this regulation, but I will lament it even more if the Labor Party were to support them in relation to that matter, particularly in relation to the important issue of maintaining integrity in relation to this process.