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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Page: 1089

Senator NETTLE (2:23 PM) —My question is to Senator Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and relates to the article in the Age today about the bridging visa review and the suggestion that work rights and Medicare access should be made available to asylum seekers on bridging visas on a case-by-case basis. Minister, isn’t that already the way in which it operates? I am aware of the case of a man who is on a bridging visa, has a master’s degree in social work and applied just two weeks ago to the department to work in a voluntary capacity in a community organisation. That application was rejected. I ask the minister: how would the government, implementing the suggestions in the Age article about the changes, change anything that currently operates in terms of the ability of the department to grant individual exemptions for access to Medicare and to work rights?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank the senator for her question and her ongoing interest in these issues. I am not sure I can actually answer the specifics of her question; I will do my best. The article in the Age was a report on what I think was claimed to be a leaked report on the review of bridging visas undertaken by the previous government. I think it was actually completed in 2006, so it is not all that recent.

As I understand it, the previous government received that review and there was no formal response to it—as I understand, nothing occurred. It was filed and no action was taken to address what I think are very serious concerns about the failures of the bridging visa system and how, under the current system, people who may be seeking asylum end up on bridging visas—that is, out in the community—but without work rights and without access to Medicare.

I think there has been concern around the parliament that a number of these people are reliant on charities to live. They receive allowances to buy staples to allow them to live, because they are out in the community but they are not allowed to work, so they have no means of supporting themselves. I think everyone around the chamber would accept that is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The review canvassed those issues and, as I say, the previous government failed to respond to that. As a result, that situation remains. Protection visa applicants who hold a bridging visa may be eligible to work and access Medicare if they applied for a protection visa within 45 days of arriving in Australia—the 45-day rule. As I understand it, about 34 per cent of protection visa applicants in the community hold a bridging visa without work rights. So there are a substantial number out in the community who do not have those work rights and are reliant on charity. I know a lot of the charitable institutions are basically saying, ‘While we’re happy to help, we ought not be forced into a position of having to care for people who are there by virtue of the government failing to deal properly with its responsibilities.’

As I think I indicated to you at the estimates hearing, Senator Nettle, it is one of the issues that I am grappling with. I do think it is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am trying to find a solution to this issue. It is not that easy. The changes introduced in terms of the 45-day rule were justified to try and prevent some gaming of the system that was alleged at the time. I understand the rationale that was advanced for that, but it is the case that there are large numbers of people who are out in the community on bridging visas while their applications to be treated as asylum seekers are being processed and it is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am committed to trying to fix this. We are working very hard on the options and I hope to be able to do something fairly soon.

If I can provide any further information as to your specific question, Senator Nettle, I will do so, but I am not sure I quite got the nub of what you were seeking from me today. I might get that from the supplementary question or, if not, I will come back with further information.

Senator NETTLE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Perhaps the minister could indicate whether the government is intending to respond to the previous government’s report into how it would deal with bridging visas. The report of the Senate inquiry into the Migration Act that was chaired by the Labor Party said:

A policy which renders a person destitute is morally indefensible and an abrogation of responsibility by the Commonwealth.

Is the government considering committing to a more substantial review of the bridging visa E system so that work rights and access to Medicare are automatically granted to allow people to support themselves whilst they wait for their visa status to be resolved?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank Senator Nettle. I think the current system is indefensible—to say it is morally indefensible is probably very strong, but I think it is indefensible. We do need to have a situation that is much more coherent and caring—rather than one which does plan for people to be destitute out in the community without the capacity to work and earn a living or be in receipt of benefits. The solution to this issue is very much, I think, focused around people’s work rights and access to benefits. I do not know about a broader review. I am very focused on trying to fix this issue. It is something that I regard as a priority and hope to have resolved, at least in part, fairly quickly.