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Wednesday, 6 June 2001
Page: 27482


Mr SCIACCA (10:56 AM) —The Migration Legislation Amendment (Electronic Transactions and Methods of Notification) Bill 2001 is mainly of a technical nature and seeks to facilitate electronic communication within the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. In addition, however, the bill establishes a framework to allow the use of computer programs to make simple and non-controversial decisions to streamline and expedite some basic migration processes. Essentially, the bill seeks to respond to the changing nature of business, and to enable the department to provide fast, accurate, accessible and secure information while maintaining a high degree of privacy and integrity. One of the benefits of this bill will be to enable people to lodge applications and access computer generated decisions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This removes the restrictions of office hours, distance from essential services and time constraints.

Obviously, the most significant example of computer based decision making is Australia's current system of electronic travel authorisation, otherwise known as ETA. It automatically issues millions of visas for travel to Australia when people book their travel requirements. The ETA system simultaneously links travel agencies across the world, DIMA and airline companies to issue travellers with electronic visas. Such a system obviously provides great benefits to the tourist and travel industries in Australia, and in the future I would like to see reciprocal travel arrangements expanded to include countries that traditionally have not benefited from this system. This morning I was to attend a meeting on the extension of the ETA facility to Portugal, and I hope that such a move will encourage many more Portuguese holiday-makers to visit Australia and vice versa.

Returning to the provisions of the bill, I want to discuss briefly the only area of the legislation in which concerns may arise; that is, the establishment of a framework for computer programs to make decisions on behalf of the minister—albeit, the opposition is advised, very basic decisions. Some of my colleagues were somewhat concerned by this provision and have sought a briefing by DIMA officers, where they had the opportunity to question in depth some of the more technical and legalistic aspects of the bill.

Whenever a decision of a subjective nature is taken there are risks associated with the misinterpretation of facts or with the making of incorrect value judgments. Computer based decisions are no different. A programmed formula or set of encrypted, and thus limited, instructions cannot be trained to discern between the myriad of facts and circumstances which may surround an essentially human problem. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that three conditions are met before any computer based program is allowed to decide the fate of a person's request. Firstly, a computer program must have a field of knowledge and operation that is limited to making simple, objective, transparent and accountable decisions. Secondly, the computer program must be secure and ensure that the privacy and integrity of both the department and the applicant are maintained. Thirdly, a mechanism must exist whereby any decision taken by a computer program is appealable, reviewable and able to be substituted for a more favourable outcome by the minister or his authorised officers.

From the briefing that my office obtained from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, I understand that these provisions are met and that adequate safeguards have been incorporated into the legislation. Even my colleague from the Senate, Senator Barney Cooney, seemed to be appropriately satisfied. If he is satisfied on these issues, then I think I should be satisfied. For example, I understand that complex decisions such as visa cancellations—where facts, opinions and circumstances have to be weighed and considered in a more human context—will not be made by a computer program but will continue to be processed by immigration officers with discretionary powers. The opposition supports this bill.