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Thursday, 26 June 2003
Page: 17762

Mrs IRWIN (10:27 PM) —The Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has introduced the Migration Amendment (Duration of Detention) Bill 2003 in a great rush and no doubt would like to see it passed in the shortest possible time. But he has not outlined any reason for the urgency. He refers to the fact that 20 persons have been released and more than half of those released from detention are of, as he puts it, `significant character concern'. But the real reasons for the push to get this bill before the parliament have more to do with the minister wanting to get the focus back on the government's agenda than dealing with some urgent problem. The minister gives this away in his second reading speech:

The bill amends the Migration Act to make it clear that, unless an unlawful non-citizen is removed from Australia, deported or granted a visa, the non-citizen must be kept in immigration detention.

Just in case you missed the meaning of that statement, the minister went on to say:

The bill ensures that an unlawful non-citizen must be kept in immigration detention pending determination of any substantive proceedings, whether or not: there is a real likelihood of the person detained being removed from Australia or deported in the reasonably forseeable future; or a decision to refuse to grant, to cancel or refuse to reinstate a visa may be determined to be unlawful by a court.

So that is the minister's approach: no exceptions; no special circumstances. No exceptions, even for a case such as Mr Al Masri, a failed asylum seeker who was prepared to return home but, due to the situation in the Middle East—he is Palestinian—was unable to do so. If it was not for the Federal Court, Mr Al Masri may have been condemned to life behind razor wire in a detention centre for years to come.

That is always going to be a problem with mandatory detention laws. They do not account for the different circumstances that they are applied to each day. But the minister seems to think that section 196, which was included in the Migration Reform Act 1992, should not allow exceptions. The minister says that the Federal Court has indicated that, if the parliament wishes to prevent a court from ordering the interlocutory release of a person from immigration detention, it must make its intentions unmistakably clear. As the minister says, this bill is intended to achieve this.

But which goal is it achieving? Is it achieving the goal of the Federal Court, or is it achieving the goal of the minister to preserve without exception the regime of mandatory detention? I think the Federal Court has made it clear that closing this last little chink in the Migration Act and making mandatory detention apply in every case is something for the parliament to decide in the clearest terms. I do not think the Federal Court is demanding that we close the gate completely. I think the Federal Court is asking us whether we really know what we would be doing if we closed off this one last chance for freedom for the small group of people who are the exception to the rule that section 196 applies. The minister concluded by saying:

... the bill implements measures to ensure that the parliament's original intention in relation to immigration detention is clearly spelt out and the integrity of the act is not compromised.

But I am not so sure that the minister can speak for the parliament's original intention. I very much doubt that the parliament envisaged the long-term detention of children that we have seen.

That brings me to the amendment proposed by the opposition, which seeks to bring attention to the plight of children in long-term, high-security detention. When I have visited detention centres and seen children playing behind the high razor wire fences, I have had to remind myself that I am in Australia and that I am an Australian. I never thought I would see the day when an Australian government imprisoned young children in the way that this government imprisons young children. The representatives of the company managing the centre point out—and they have pointed out to me—the playground equipment, and then they show you through the classroom. They may be better than the facilities that those children left to come to Australia, but there is always the shadow of the razor wire. While a visitor knows that at the end of the tour they can pass through the gate and go out into the world, the children behind the razor wire know that they cannot.

I have seen reports that show the effect on children and families. I have read the cases of children likely to suffer long-term damage as a result of their detention. It makes me ashamed to be part of a nation which imprisons children. There are alternatives, as I have seen in Woomera. But they can only be regarded as suitable if families can be kept together—and it is so important to keep families together. With the closure of Woomera, the fathers have been shipped off to Baxter and other centres, leaving their wives and children hundreds of kilometres away. The minister tells us that there are consultations under way for the development of alternative accommodation at Baxter, but at this rate it will be years before that reality is reached. In the meantime, mothers and their children have the choice of living outside but away from their husbands and fathers or with them behind the razor wire. What a choice to make. But this minister would not allow the courts to have a role in deciding the fate of these families.

So far as I can tell, the parliament did not consider the possibility of the circumstances we saw—and it has been quoted a number of times tonight in a number of speeches—in the Al Masri case. If it did, it would be reasonable to expect that the parliament assumed that the courts would have a role in such a case, as in fact occurred with Al Masri. But, even then, that has to be read with regard to the limits on the period of mandatory detention that were applied. Without that safeguard, the Migration Act would allow not only mandatory detention but indefinite mandatory detention. You could say it allows for life imprisonment for people who have not committed a crime. I do not want to sound too dramatic, but being locked up indefinitely, not knowing from one day to the next when you can be expected to be released, not knowing when you can get on with living the rest of your life, is a very cruel form of punishment. I do not think it was ever the intention of this parliament to impose such a regime.

The minister states that, of the 20 persons released on these orders—and I note that 20 is hardly a large number—more than half of these persons are of significant character concern and the government believes their presence is a serious risk to the Australian community. I can only assume that this is the reason for rushing this bill into the parliament. The minister has known since last year that the legislation had to be tightened if he wanted a policy of absolute mandatory detention. And now we have at least 10 people of what the minister describes as `significant character concern'. That could mean they are anything from axe murderers to shonky business people, but we are to understand that these people are loose in the community and that this change is urgently required to prevent more people of significant character concern from joining them. What we can be sure of is that this will always be a difficult group to deal with.

I know from representations made to me by Asian communities that there is concern for non-citizens who have been convicted of serious offences and face deportation after they have served their sentences. In some cases the individuals concerned came to Australia as very young children and through various circumstances did not take up the opportunity to take Australian citizenship. While there is no forgiveness for the crimes they have committed, there is some sympathy for the fate that awaits them when they return to a country which they left as small children. As convicted criminals they cannot expect a warm welcome from their homeland. It is not surprising that in some instances the homeland they fled from as children does not want them back.

So we have a situation where people who have served their prison time for offences continue to be held in custody awaiting deportation. While it is fair to say that there is little sympathy for these people, it is unjust for them to be punished beyond the sentence handed down. I am sure that is not the only reason but I can believe that it is a factor contributing to the very high proportion of people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos taking Australian citizenship now. And I know that those communities hold concerns for people deported to those countries.

Whichever way you look at the situation, we are only dealing with a small number of cases and I would think that the parliament has the right to a fuller explanation of the reasons for this bill and, more to the point, the reasons for the urgency of this bill. Can it be that the minister has been feeling the heat of revelations that he and his Liberal colleagues have benefited from donations which mysteriously led to approvals for visas? The minister has gone back to his familiar role of attacking refugees. That is the formula that has worked in the past; why not try it again? When your political stocks are down, why not blame the refugees? Why else would the minister be in such a rush to get this bill through the parliament? All this is for a dozen people of, as the minister says, `significant character concern'.

The minister says that the reason for the bill is that where the person's application is unsuccessful, that person must be relocated, re-detained and arrangements made for their removal from Australia. This assumes that those persons immediately failed to comply with stringent reporting conditions. And the bill does not specifically address the issue of release orders for criminal deportees. Labor would be glad to cooperate with the government to ensure community safety. But when you weigh these factors against the harsh realities of long-term detention, surely we should err on the side of compassion.

It seems the starting point for the minister's approach is that detention is nothing more than a minor annoyance. A few years staying at taxpayer expense in five-star luxury in one of the minister's detention centres. I can recall a headline in the Sydney Daily Telegraph which reported that detainees at Woomera were very fortunate because they had airconditioning. The article went on to say that people would be envious of the conditions at Woomera. I have had the chance—I cannot say it was a pleasure—to visit almost all detention centres in Australia. I served on the joint standing committee which produced the report titled Not the Hilton, which examined conditions at detention centres. I can tell you the title did not begin to describe the conditions.

In more recent times I have visited Woomera. I have seen the centres. I have read the reports on the effect of long-term detention on detainees and I can say this: there must be some recognition of the effects of long-term detention. And there must remain a role for the courts to consider the small number of cases where we know that the risk of harm to the detainee is greater than the risk to the community. The minister seems so focused on maintaining what he calls the `integrity of the system' that he is prepared to overlook the harm to individuals. But that is a role for the courts—the defenders of individual freedoms—which protect each of us from the tyranny of governments. So we are left to wonder why this minister is so frantic in his efforts to plug the last gap in section 196. There is no good reason for his behaviour. Again his speech on this bill gives us a small glimpse at his reasons. He says:

The government needs to ensure, as a matter of public policy, that all unlawful non-citizens are detained until their status is clarified.

There are two key parts to that: a matter of public policy and unlawfulness. That is what this bill is all about: the minister needs to be seen to be doing something about those unlawful non-citizens. When the minister's integrity is under attack he reverts to form. He drums up a problem of serious public alarm: the risk posed to community safety by a dozen or so people of significant character concern. And he solves the problem: stop the courts from carrying out their important role of defending the rights of individuals. As I said, he reverts to his true form.

It means nothing to this minister that dozens of people may be detained. Or should I say `imprisoned'—because that is what it is? People would be imprisoned as a result of a decision which in the terms of the act `is, or may be, unlawful'. But we have come to expect that sort of thing from this minister. As we have seen over the past few years, this minister shows fewer and fewer of the human qualities that many once saw in him. He has become the shallow bureaucrat following orders—without understanding, without compassion and without a soul. I can picture the minister for immigration waking up every morning, taking his Amnesty badge out of the top drawer and putting it on his coat lapel. Well, Minister, you do not deserve to wear the Amnesty badge and you should return it to Amnesty International.

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Fowler must understand that the present remarks—

Mr Hockey —Sit down—that's just grubby.

Mrs Irwin —Look at what he's doing!

The SPEAKER —I will deal with the member for Fowler and the Minister for Small Business and Tourism simultaneously.