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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
26/05/2014
Estimates
IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION PORTFOLIO
Refugee Review Tribunal

Refugee Review Tribunal

[12:04]

CHAIR: I declare the hearings of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee back in session. We are now dealing with the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio. First up is the Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal. I welcome Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash. Thank you very much for joining us, Minister. Senator Cash, did you want to make an opening statement?

Senator Cash: I do not, thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Senator Carr, I understand you are first.

Senator Cash: I think Ms Ransome may have an opening statement.

CHAIR: I beg your pardon. Are there any statements from the Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal? I apologise for not asking.

Ms Ransome : The tribunals last appeared before the committee in February and I thought it might be opportune to update you on some matters that have occurred since then. I am very pleased to say that there has been a large increase in cases decided by the tribunals this financial year. The tribunals have now made more than 22,000 decisions so far this year, which is nearly 40 per cent more than the number of decisions that were made in the same period in 2012-13 and 2½ times the number that were made in the same period in the year before. We anticipate that we will determine 24,000 matters this year and we are continuing to see a decline in the tribunals' active caseload. The active caseload has decreased by almost 20 per cent since April last year.

As the committee will be aware, over recent years the tribunals experienced delays in determining applications due to large increases in applications. Working our way through the matters on hand is most important for our applicants and the wider community, to whom we have a responsibility to meet our obligations for timeliness and efficiency in our reviews. I am pleased to say that in general our applicants are now waiting less time for a decision.

The trend of increasing lodgements has continued this financial year, although not at previous levels, with overall lodgements increasing by six per cent compared to the same period in 2012-13. The nature of the caseload is also changing, with lodgements increasing in relation to partner visas and protection visas but decreasing in the skilled and student visa classes. Lodgements for partner cases have increased by 64 per cent and by 44 per cent for RRT cases. For the RRT, lodgements are currently highest for applicants from Sri Lanka, then China and then Afghanistan.

Since 1 July 2013, the RRT has received 2,963 lodgements from unauthorised or illegal maritime arrivals seeking a review of the decision to refuse them a protection visa. The primary countries of origin of these applicants are Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Four hundred and forty-eight cases were decided by 30 April, with a set-aside rate of 38 per cent. Processing of these applications has been affected by ministerial direction No. 57 which, from 24 June 2013, imposed an order of processing for applications to the RRT that prioritises non-maritime arrival cases.

There is more work to do to reduce the number of active cases and to be able to return to our target processing times. The tribunals have in place and are developing further mechanisms to achieve this. These include the refinement of specialist member teams introduced in 2012, the integration of hearing lists into standard procedures for suitable caseloads in 2013-14 and the introduction of our online application service, which has seen just over half of all new applications being lodged online. This will assist applicants and their representatives and will free our staff to concentrate on the more complex aspects of our work.

I am sure you will be aware that the government announced in the recent federal budget that the MRT-RRT will be amalgamated with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Classification Review Board. The amalgamation is planned to take effect on 1 July 2015. Discussions have commenced between these agencies and with the relevant departments on how best to implement the changes required to achieve the amalgamation. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions or to elaborate on any matters just highlighted.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Ms Ransome for a very concise overview. As an administrative matter, where will the AAT, in its migration jurisdiction, appear in estimates in the future?

Ms Ransome : I presume in whichever portfolio the new tribunal is located, which would seem to be the Attorney-General's portfolio.

CHAIR: Okay. So it will still be with this committee. Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you expect that, for the amalgamation to take effect, it will require legislative change?

Ms Ransome : I understand that to be the case, although any questions in relation to what the new tribunal may look like or the policy behind that I think would need to be directed to the Attorney-General's Department, rather than ourselves.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, because this was a measure, I understand, that was tried some years ago and failed to attract support of the Senate. That is correct isn't it?

Ms Ransome : That is correct.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you recall what the grounds were at the time for the Senate not agreeing to the proposed amalgamation?

Ms Ransome : Not in detail, no.

Senator KIM CARR: My colleague here, Senator Ludwig, reminds me that it was because of loss of rights that were involved in the amalgamation. Are there any loss of rights that you can identify that would be a consequence of this amalgamation?

Ms Ransome : I think the announcement is only a couple of weeks old and no detail has as yet been made available on what the new tribunal might look like.

Senator KIM CARR: Senator Ludwig might be interested to follow it up.

Senator LUDWIG: Have their been any discussions with about the tribunal, how it will be formed and how you will sit within it?

Ms Ransome : I understand that this perhaps may be something that the department can answer more clearly than ourselves; what the consultative arrangements are in relation to the establishment of the new body.

Mr Bowles : As it has been said, it is only early days—they are still trying to work through a range of those issues and it is being run out of the Attorney-General's Department. They have consulted broadly with my department because of the connection, obviously, with the MRT and RRT, but there is a lot of work still to go and I am not aware of all of the issue in that regard at this stage. But it is probably best placed with Attorney-General's Department.

Senator LUDWIG: My question, Ms Ransome, was have you been consulted in relation to this issue to date?

Ms Ransome : We are represented on a steering committee that has been set up with membership from the respective tribunals and, if I may call them, the 'home' departments of those tribunals. That steering committee has met once to date.

Senator LUDWIG: And that is the only interaction you have had to date with the new announcement of a tribunal?

Ms Ransome : Arising out of the steering committee, various working groups are to be established that will look at aspects such as accommodation, information technology and human resources. We have nominated a staff member to be on each of those working groups.

Senator LUDWIG: How many working groups are under the steering committee?

Mr Plowman : Four, at this stage.

Senator LUDWIG: What are the four then?

Mr Plowman : In addition to what Ms Ransome said there is a finance working party, as well as the IT, the HR and the property.

Senator LUDWIG: And so there is no steering committee looking at the legislation as to how it would operate—that is, the rights for access to the tribunal, how the decision in the legislation would work and how appeal rights would be dealt with?

Ms Ransome : I think with those matters that it is too early to say what the outcome would be of any policy deliberations around those issues.

Senator LUDWIG: Mine was a negative question: there is no steering committee in respect of those issues that you are aware of?

Ms Ransome : At this stage, we are not aware of a particular working group on legislation, no.

Senator LUDWIG: Not on legislation, but on those issues that I raised—

Senator KIM CARR: On the question of rights.

Senator LUDWIG: the question of appeal rights, the question of access to their tribunals. Fundamentally under your present legislation—you know it better than I, I suspect—you have who can apply, what the procedures are, how the decisions are made and what appeal rights are available. I do not have to remind you of all of that. You are familiar with it very comfortably, I suspect. Let's envisage what happens to those when you then move to a new system that the government has announced? Have you had any discussions in relation to those matters to date?

Ms Ransome : Not by the tribunals at this stage. I am not aware whether the department has had any discussions, but the tribunal has not at this stage had any discussions around access.

Senator LUDWIG: You are not aware of any steering committee that has been set up to deal with that?

Ms Ransome : In and of itself, no.

Senator KIM CARR: Mr Bowles, has there been a committee established anywhere else within the government, that you are aware of, that deals with the rights of applicants?

Mr Bowles : I am not aware of any. It is probably a question best asked of Attorney-General's because that is where it is running from.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, thank you. Ms Ransome, when were you advised of the government's intention to form this single review tribunal?

Ms Ransome : We were aware that there were discussions in about April.

Senator KIM CARR: Were you party to those discussions?

Ms Ransome : No.

Senator KIM CARR: So, you were aware of discussions. When were you advised that the government had made a decision?

Ms Ransome : Obviously, we saw the recommendations in the Commission of Audit report. We were advised prior to the budget that the decision had been made.

Senator KIM CARR: I take it, Mr Bowles, that it was a cabinet decision?

Mr Bowles : I am unaware of the exact process, but it was obviously through the normal expenditure review processes I would imagine.

Senator KIM CARR: Presumably it would have to be a cabinet decision, wouldn't it?

Mr Bowles : Again, probably best asked of the finance department, because I—

Senator KIM CARR: The finance department?

Mr Bowles : Yes—finance, or PM&C or one of those. I am unaware of—

Senator KIM CARR: How the decision was made.

Mr Bowles : Yes, because it does not affect my department in that sense.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. Can any of the officers from the agency tell me whether or not it was a cabinet decision?

Mr Bowles : I doubt if they would because we were not involved in those conversations.

Senator KIM CARR: But surely you must know how the decision was made?

Mr Bowles : There are a lot of decisions that get made around the budget and around the Commission of Audit, as we have seen over the last couple of weeks. My department is involved in the ones that affect it. As Ms Ransome said, she was advised, I think, the day before the budget or thereabouts. As we all saw in the Commission of Audit, there was commentary on this particular issue and from there decisions are made. You are correct, that is the normal process, but I cannot be definitive on exactly how it went through the system.

Senator KIM CARR: Ms Ransome, you are an independent agency aren't you—independent of the department?

Ms Ransome : That is right.

Senator KIM CARR: So, you would have a right to expect that you would be informed of the decision that would affect the amalgamation of your agency with another agency?

Ms Ransome : We would expect that at some point in the process, yes, we would be informed of the policy decision that government had made.

Mr Bowles : The MRT and RRT are a portfolio agency underneath my portfolio, and I advised Ms Ransome the day before the budget, after the process had gone through.

Senator KIM CARR: But you cannot tell me if it was a cabinet decision?

Mr Bowles : No, I cannot.

Senator KIM CARR: As the departmental secretary, you cannot tell me?

Mr Bowles : Again, I do not participate in those conversations. The normal process clearly would be that it would go through those sorts of issues, but I cannot go to the specifics of any cabinet deliberations.

Senator KIM CARR: Maybe government has changed since we were there a little while ago, but there was a process whereby cabinet minutes were produced and circulated to the affected departments. That is not happening any more? Is that what you are saying?

Mr Bowles : No, that is not what I am saying.

Senator KIM CARR: I am surprised that you cannot tell me.

Mr Bowles : I do not know the specifics of what happened through a cabinet process.

CHAIR: I think they are probably more questions for the minister, and Senator Cash is not the minister but the representative minister. Perhaps Senator Cash might be able to take those questions on notice if it is important to you.

Senator Cash: I am happy to do that, if they are important to Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you. That is very good. With regard to the budget impact: Ms Ransome, page 70 in Budget Paper No. 2 relates to an expense measure with savings of some $19.4 million. Have I read that correctly? Is there a savings measure associated with this action of $19.4 million?

Mr Plowman : Did you say page 70?

Senator Cash: Yes, I did. I said page 70, Budget Paper No. 2. It says:

Smaller Government—additional reductions in the number of Australian Government bodies

Mr Plowman : I believe that to be the expected savings from the amalgamation, including that relating to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Senator KIM CARR: How much of the expected saving is actually coming from your operations?

Mr Plowman : We are not aware of that at the moment and we have to go through processes with the other agencies and the other tribunals to sort out exactly what that figure will be.

Senator KIM CARR: Mr Bowles, can you tell me how much of that saving is coming from your department for particular agency?

Mr Bowles : Again, if you look at those numbers, it is across multiple agencies in the consolidation process and a lot of those issues still need to be worked through.

Senator KIM CARR: The budget papers indicate there will be a saving. Your agency does not seem to know how much of the saving you are expected to produce. Is that what you are telling me?

Mr Bowles : What I am telling you, Senator, is that there is a process that we work through. These are obviously the estimated savings that will be achieved through this process.

Senator KIM CARR: How was the estimate arrived at?

Mr Bowles : Again, this is across all agencies. It is a question best asked of Finance

Senator KIM CARR: How much of the savings will now apply on a yearly basis to your agency? Can I ask one of the officers?

Mr Plowman : Senator, we are not aware of that at this time.

Senator KIM CARR: It would follow from the previous answer, wouldn’t it, because you do not know?

Mr Plowman : We are not aware, Senator.

Senator Cash: Chair, if I may, it has been made quite clear that we are at the beginning of a process and at this particular point in time there has been an estimation as to the savings across a number of tribunals of $19.4 million. My understanding is that going forward the government will cost precise savings in consultation with the tribunals. That process will occur.

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. So Ms Ransome, you worked out that you expect 24,000 this year. How many will you do next year?.

Ms Ransome : We anticipate that next year we will decide around 21,000 matters.

Senator KIM CARR: How will you be able to fund that if you do not know what your budget is?

Ms Ransome : We know what our budget will be. The tribunal's amalgamation is not due to occur until 1 July 2015.

Senator KIM CARR: So from 2015, how will you know what your budget is? Presuming you would hope to find out by then.

Ms Ransome : At this time we would anticipate that a new tribunal, if it comes into effect from 2015, would have a separate budget, that it will not be a budget allocation to the MRT-RRT but part of a broader budget to a new tribunal.

Senator LUDWIG: But you do not know that, do you?

Ms Ransome : I said we would anticipate, Senator; I am speculating.

Senator LUDWIG: The original model proposed that the sourcing of the funding was to be from each individual department. Now that was affected in the decision—the relevant tribunal—which was different from that which was made by Better Decisions, the original ALRC report of 1995. Can you say whether or not they intend to take that model, the Better Decisions model of funding—in other words, create a separate funding source and fund it out of the budget—or whether they intend to draw on each individual portfolio department that is responsible for the tribunal and funded out of their budget?

Ms Ransome : No, Senator I cannot say. As I said, I was speculating—I probably should not. Those are obviously policy decisions that will be made in the coming months.

Senator LUDWIG: So the question is more to the minister. Could you take on notice whether any decision has been made as to the funding source, whether no decision has been made in the alternate, whether or not it would be made as a separate budget item out of the budget for the particular tribunal or whether each individual portfolio responsible for the tribunal would then be required to fund their share of the grand tribunal?

Senator CASH: Yes, that can be taken on notice.

Senator KIM CARR: What is the annual budget at the moment?

Mr Plowman : For next year, we have an appropriation of 60.66 million plus funding coming forward from previous years of 27.6 million.

Senator KIM CARR: So we do not really know how much of that is affected in the out years. I presume you were expecting to have similar sorts of amounts from 2015 on?

Mr Plowman : We work on a sort of a demand driven funding model where we get funding in the initial sense for 18,000 decisions plus a sort of marginal rate for any decision made on top of those and that would be the norm in the future.

Senator KIM CARR: How would those sorts of costing arrangements be affected by an amalgamation of this type?

Mr Plowman : I cannot answer that question. It is probably a question better directed to Attorney-General's. That will probably be determined during the year anyway.

Senator KIM CARR: Have you had no consultation on that matter?

Mr Plowman : Not on our funding model, no.

Senator KIM CARR: How much is it per case at the moment? Do you have an idea?

Mr Plowman : In 2012-13, I think we spent about $3,600 per case. It is lower than that in 2013-14. But I do not have that figure immediately to hand.

Senator KIM CARR: How would amalgamation affect data collection? How will you know?

Mr Bowles : As everyone has said, this is the start of a process. The idea is not due to start until next year, 2015. A range of these issues will have to be worked through over the coming months.

Senator KIM CARR: I presume processing time will be another matter you will want to discuss over the next year.

Mr Bowles : I think there will be a whole range of matters for a new tribunal that is going to deal with multiple issues. They will be worked through over the coming months.

Senator KIM CARR: In terms of the working through over the coming months, we have already established there is no working group that you are aware of to deal with the rights of applicants. Outside of the government, who is being consulted about this?

Mr Bowles : That is a question best asked of the Attorney-General's Department because they have the lead in this process. We are at the start of a process. While the specifics of who has rights and otherwise may not have been determined at this stage, there are clearly things that will need to be worked through in the coming months.

Senator KIM CARR: There is not much that has been worked through to this point, is there.

Mr Bowles : We give ourselves time to work things up in an appropriate way so we understand the full implications of the implementation.

Senator KIM CARR: I presume you would still have the files from the last time this was tried, wouldn't you?

Mr Bowles : Personally, I have not seen them.

Senator KIM CARR: Would you want to consult with them?

Mr Bowles : I am sure—

Senator KIM CARR: It was such a success last time they tried this!

Mr Bowles : I am sure that the Attorney-General's Department, which has the lead, will do what they need to do—

Senator KIM CARR: Employ a historian?

Mr Bowles : to make sure it is a successful implementation.

Senator KIM CARR: Would you be able to give us an assurance that the same number of reviews that are currently undertaken on the current budget will be maintained under the new arrangements?

Mr Bowles : I do not think that would be appropriate. It is a demand-driven process. That has been gone through a number of times.

Senator KIM CARR: Will there be any loss of capacity? Can you give us an assurance on that?

Mr Bowles : I find it very difficult to believe we would have a loss of capacity to deal with the issues that are before us.

Senator KIM CARR: How many staff are currently working with the current review tribunals, the migration review tribunals?

Mr Plowman : We have about 343 staff members and 136 members at the moment.

CHAIR: Senator Carr, this might have to be your last question.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. How many do you anticipate will be retained after the amalgamation?

Mr Plowman : I cannot answer that question. This is something that has to be worked out.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you give me an indication of where the current 343 are employed, and the breakdown between staff and members of the tribunals?

Mr Plowman : I certainly can. We have exactly 336 staff members, of which 207 are in our district registries. They are in Sydney and Melbourne. They are the registries that basically give direct support to members and accept applications and things like that. In our principal registry we have 129 staff, who manage all the other functions of the organisation. We have 139 members, of whom 44 per cent are full-time and 55 per cent are part-time, plus a principal member and deputy principal member. They are mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, but we also have a small number of members in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Ransome, if the MRT and the RRT were to become more efficient, what changes would you have proposed?

Ms Ransome : We have made a number of changes over the last 18 months to two years directed at efficiencies. As I alluded to in my opening, we introduced a model of specialisation for teams, members and staff to be allocated to work on particular visa categories.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So expertise in those areas?

Ms Ransome : Expertise, yes. We have also introduced into some of our case categories a different way of conducting hearings. Rather than individual hearings, we are now conducting some hearing lists—in the same way as you might experience, for example, in a magistrates or local court—to deal with a number of matters at the same time that have common issues.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So, how do you think the positive elements that you have implemented—I am particularly interested in the specialties and the expertise—would be impacted by an amalgamation? It seems to me that that is going in the totally opposite direction.

Ms Ransome : I do not think that there would be a reason, per se, why expertise could not be retained in parts of a case load that go into an amalgamated body.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Through the process of the steering committee consultation, where do you get to raise that particular need in order to deal with the case load that you currently have?

Ms Ransome : I anticipate there will be opportunities to raise that sort of issue for all of the tribunals in the process leading to amalgamation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are there terms of reference for the steering committee?

Ms Ransome : That would again be a question that you would need to direct to the Attorney-General's Department.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You have not seen any terms of reference?

Senator Cash: If I might add, for the benefit of Senator Hanson-Young, as we are aware, we are at the beginning of the process, and it is a process that the Attorney-General's Department has carriage of. My understanding is that the amalgamated tribunal will not be taking a one-size-fits-all approach and that certainly throughout the process of determining how the amalgamation will work each tribunal and the features best fitted to that tribunal will be looked at, and it would be anticipated that those features will be taken over to the new tribunal. Certainly, it will not be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Minister, would you be able to answer the question of whether there is a terms of reference for the steering committee?

Senator Cash: I would need to take it on notice because I am not the minister in the Attorney-General's Department.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Bowles, do you know whether there are terms of reference?

Mr Bowles : No, I do not personally.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: We are going to be here all night. Would somebody be able to get back to us?

CHAIR: The Attorney-General will be here later in the estimates hearings; you could perhaps ask him then.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I could, but this is also in direct relation to a whole lot of case work that is directly linked to this department. I am particularly interested in (a) whether there are terms of reference and (b) whether it is going to pick up on these efficiency issues that the tribunal here before us has already attempted to tackle.

Senator Cash: Chair, we are not in a position to answer that question but we will take it on notice for Senator Hanson-Young.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Ransome, have there been any particular time frames laid out for you in relation to this amalgamation, aside from the start date of 1 July 2015?

Ms Ransome : Not for the tribunals. From our point of view, it is business as usual for us while we remain as the MRT-RRT.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you expect that you will be retaining all of those staff right up until 1 July next year?

Ms Ransome : We will obviously be making every effort that we can to retain our members and staff and our expertise leading into what may occur from 1 July.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there any funding difference between this coming financial year and the last?

Mr Plowman : There is a difference in the amount, but the essential basics of our funding, in the sense that we have a funding model based on 18,000 decisions, does not change from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is the amount more or less?

Mr Plowman : It is more in 2013-14 due to some existing money that was put in, but it is essentially on the same basis.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would you expect that this merger will result in fewer protection visas being afforded?

Ms Ransome : That is not a question that I can answer. As Mr Bowles said, the work that we do is demand driven downstream—if I may use that word—from the department and its processing. The number of matters that we deal with is dependent on decision making by the department in the first instance.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are there any risks that you see, Ms Ransome, in merging all of these tribunals together? Particularly for the caseloads that are dealt with by the RRT.

Ms Ransome : In any consultations and discussions that will obviously take place leading to the amalgamation, we will be—and I am sure the department will be—putting forward views to maintain the integrity of the work that we do.

Senator Cash: Chair, for the benefit of the committee and so it is reflected properly on the record, the tribunals that we are currently examining will continue as usual up until the change takes place. Until 1 July 2015, it is business as usual for the tribunals. In terms of the government's decision to amalgamate a number of tribunals, the reason that we have taken that decision is obviously a financial one, but the overall premise is to continue to ensure that the reviews are fair, just, economical, informal and quick. In relation to the answers to Senator Hanson-Young's questions, they are certainly the overarching principles upon which any amalgamation will take place.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You said that you were made aware of the decision to amalgamate these agencies when the Commission of Audit report was released. Were you ever consulted by any of the people working on the Commission of Audit?

Ms Ransome : No, Senator.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there was a recommendation from this commission, and yet they did not actually speak to you?

Ms Ransome : Not to me.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Did they speak to anybody in the MRT or the RRT?

Ms Ransome : No, Senator.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Has there been any thought or direction from the department to you as to how the tribunals should be dealing with what is perceived as an increased number of cases because of the immigration department's data breach in relation to asylum seekers?

Ms Ransome : There has been no direction issued to the tribunals by the department in relation to that issue.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: No information about how it could be best handled?

Ms Ransome : We are obviously aware of the data breach. We have had some applicants that have made some submissions to us in relation to their cases and the data breach. We understand that the department has advised all people who were subject of the breach of the fact. Each of the matters that are raised before us will be considered as claims within the context of that particular application.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is it foreseen that there will be an increase number of appeals because of that new implication of the data breach?

Ms Ransome : I do not think that we have seen that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And there has not been any communication from the department to you to expect it?

Ms Ransome : No. We have obviously had some information from the department in relation to the fact of the data breach and the number of people who were affected, but there has certainly been no direction to the tribunals.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In terms of the information that the tribunals will use to assess that issue, in terms of your specialties and expertise, have you got somebody looking into what the impact of having that information relating to an individual's circumstance may mean if they end up being deported?

Ms Ransome : What the tribunals are looking at in relation to the RRT—which is the area that you are referring to—is whether or not the applicant is owed protection. One of the considerations is clearly what may happen to the person on return to their home country. Any issue that concerns the fact that their identity may be known is a matter that is considered in the context of that particular case. I am afraid I cannot give you a blanket answer in relation to all matters involving people from a wide variety of countries and a wide variety of backgrounds.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You do accept that you would have to take that into consideration?

Ms Ransome : Where there is a claim by a person that they will suffer persecution on return to their home country arising out of this, obviously, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There was a report in The Australian newspaper on 23 May 2014 regarding the fast tracking of refugee processing, which said it was partly being facilitated through this amalgamation. It was written:

The ultimate aim of the reforms would be to lower the success rate for Australian refugee claims …

Do you think that is accurate?

Senator Cash: Chair, with all due respect to the questioner, perhaps a copy of the actual article can be tabled so that Miss Ransome has the opportunity to consider that quote in the context of the article, as opposed to merely just putting a quote to her.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am happy to have that copy circulated to you, Ms Ransome, if you were not aware of the front-page article last Friday in The Australian.

Ms Ransome : I saw the article in question, but any questions in relation to government policy in relation to a new mechanism would need to be directed to the department. I am unable to answer questions in that regard.

Senator SESELJA: I want to go through some of the numbers. I know you touched on a couple of numbers in your opening statement. I hope it will not double up; I do not think it will. Going back to the RRT annual report 2012-13, I think it said 3,757 cases were finalised during the period 1 July 2013 to 30 April 2014. The tribunal's website indicates the RRT finalised 2,859 cases. Are you able to give us an update on what are the latest numbers you have, and whether you expect that you will be finalising more cases or fewer cases in this financial year compared to 2012-13?

Ms Ransome : We would anticipate around similar numbers to be finalised this year compared to last year.

Senator SESELJA: The first part of the question was whether there was any update on the 30 April figures, which are on the website?

Ms Ransome : No. The latest figures I have in front of me are also from 30 April.

Senator SESELJA: So that is the most up-to-date we have.

Ms Ransome : Yes. Our May figures will soon be available through the website.

Senator SESELJA: Okay, great. In the 2012-13 report it was also noted that the RRT set-aside rate was 37 per cent of total cases decided, and I think the affirmed rate was 59 per cent. The latest figure for this financial year up to 30 April 2014 is a set-aside rate of 22 per cent. Are you able to talk us through what the reasons for such a significant change from one year to another—from 37 per cent last year financial year to 22 per cent to date—might be?

Ms Ransome : One factor that has affected the set-aside rate if the proportion of cases from particular source countries that have been dealt with in more recent months compared to the previous year.

Senator SESELJA: I will come to that in terms of some countries having higher set-aside rates. You think that is the reason there have been more assessments and appeals from some of those nations which traditionally have a higher set-aside rate? Is that reasonable?

Ms Ransome : Ministerial direction 57, which I referred to in my opening and introduced in June 2013, imposes an order of processing on protection visa applications which prioritises applications that are made by persons who arrived in Australia with a valid visa—generally people who are onshore over people who have arrived by other means. There has traditionally been a relatively low set-aside rate for applications from persons who are onshore for a range of reasons, including the source country and the fact that they have been in Australia for quite some time prior to making an application for a protection visa. The tribunal has concentrated on those cases in accordance with the direction over the last almost 12 months. Prior to that, the tribunal dealt with a lot of cases involving persons who were unauthorised arrivals from a very different range of countries.

Senator SESELJA: Let me unpack that. You are saying that the country profile is different, and that might be part of the explanation, but you also saying that there is a distinction between unlawful maritime arrivals and those who arrived with a valid visa and a lower set-aside rate. It may be because they have been in the country longer. You are saying that in that case more information is known when either the department or the tribunal makes a decision. Is that the rationale? I am just trying to follow the logic of why there would be a significant difference in those two categories.

Ms Ransome : It can be. I am making a very broad generalisation here that for someone who has been in the country for some time, and who arrived on another type of visa, questions may be raised as to the credibility of their claims at this point in time through delay in making an application.

Senator SESELJA: So the delay itself may lead to those questions being raised.

Ms Ransome : Questions being asked, yes.

Senator SESELJA: You said that with the ministerial direction that is a part of what is happening here, so we are seeing those who have arrived with a visa versus those who arrived without a visa being assessed. Are there any stats that demonstrate that, because you are saying it is a different set-aside rate? Do they get disaggregated at all?

Ms Ransome : We can provide you with that information. It is probably better if we take it on notice and give you the differences between different countries.

Senator SESELJA: Figures for the last three financial years would be great. You touched on some particular countries of origin that have higher set-aside rates and that that might be part of the explanation. I think in the last financial year Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran had the highest set-aside rates—correct me if I am wrong—at 84 per cent, 65 per cent and 61 per cent respectively. Is that correct?

Ms Ransome : For all RRT cases, which include unauthorised arrivals and others, the set-aside rate is 72 per cent for Afghanistan, 61 per cent for Iran and 42 per cent for Pakistan.

Senator SESELJA: Is that the last financial year?

Ms Ransome : That is the current rate.

Senator SESELJA: The current financial year.

Ms Ransome : Yes, the current financial year.

Senator SESELJA: Are those figures for the last financial year correct or is there a variation?

Ms Ransome : Yes, your figures are correct for the previous financial year.

Senator SESELJA: I am trying to establish why they are so high for those nations. I know there is a slight difference if you look at the financial year to date where there the three highest are Afghanistan again and Iran and Iraq rather than Pakistan and Iran. If you look at those countries over the last two financial years, why are the figures so high for Iran, for instance? Why are we seeing such a high set-aside rate of over 60 per cent in the last financial year?

Ms Ransome : It is difficult to give you a precise answer to that question. Each case has to be determined on the facts of that case and the relevant evidence. There are a range of claims that come before the tribunals involving citizens of those countries; there is not just one single claim set. Often between the time the department makes its decision and the time the tribunal makes its decision there may be changes in the country's circumstances or there may be new information that is available to the tribunal that will have an impact on the outcomes before the tribunal.

Senator SESELJA: Has that been the case with somewhere like, for instance, Iran? In the time between departmental decision making, has there been any change in the country assessment for Iran?

Ms Ransome : For Iran, no.

Senator SESELJA: So, again, it seems very high and seems to fly in the face of the former foreign minister saying that what we were seeing was significant numbers of Iranians coming as economic migrants—as he referred to them—yet we are seeing that according to the tribunal the department is effectively getting it wrong in over 60 per cent of cases with Iran. It does seem very high in those circumstances where nothing has changed, and you have statements from the former foreign minister as well. Why are we seeing so many departmental decisions overturned by the RRT on Iran?

Ms Ransome : As I said, I cannot give you a single answer to that question. There are a range of claims that are made before the tribunal—even some relating to conversion to Christianity that may well have occurred since the person arrived in Australia—that may be relevant to the determination of the outcome.

Senator SESELJA: Is it policy or practice to allocate to particular members appeals from the same countries? Would some members be dealing with the same countries exclusively or primarily?

Ms Ransome : We have a system whereby members receive cases from a range of countries, but there is some confinement of that to a number of members dealing with cases from a particular country, and then we rotate members through those specialties.

Senator SESELJA: So some would start to specialise and handle appeals from just a limited number of countries or particular countries?

Ms Ransome : Yes, for a time. The RRT has always operated like that.

Senator SESELJA: The plus side might be that they get to know what is happening, and there are some efficiencies there in terms of the knowledge of the member. But I guess the potential flipside would be that there becomes a sort of routine decision making because they have heard many from particular countries and so there can be perhaps a tick-and-flick approach. How do you guard against that occurring?

Ms Ransome : All members are subject to a performance assessment process in which we examine their performance against certain standards, including how they conduct hearings, the quality of their decisions and a range of other matters. Each member is appointed to the office and undertakes to perform that to the best of their ability.

Senator SESELJA: The annual report for 2012-13 noted that on average the RRT took 23 weeks to finalise a case. What is your anticipation on the average time for this financial year? Will that time get shorter or longer?

Ms Ransome : That is hard to answer. Because of ministerial direction 57, as I said earlier, our emphasis shifted from unauthorised arrivals to cases where the applicant arrived in Australia with a visa. That has had the effect of skewing our time frames to some extent.

Senator SESELJA: Which way have they skewed them?

Ms Ransome : The current average age of active cases is around 123 days. I would anticipate that in terms of timeliness we will see some further deterioration before we see an improvement.

Senator SESELJA: Is that the same measure as we are talking about in terms of the average time taken to finalise a case? Or is that a slightly different measure?

Ms Ransome : From application to decision at the moment the average time frame is 233 days.

Senator SESELJA: That is significantly more than 23 weeks, so we are seeing an increase. Why would the change to those who have had a valid visa when they arrive see the time frame blowing out?

Ms Ransome : Previous to ministerial direction 57, the tribunal gave priority to those cases where the applicant was an unauthorised arrival, which meant that applications by persons who were already in Australia went to the back of the line, I suppose. Since ministerial direction 57 has come in we have switched our focus to those cases which by then had been somewhat older.

Senator SESELJA: So this is about you dealing with a backlog of cases that had already been in the system for a long time. It is not that these cases take longer to assess.

Ms Ransome : That is right. It is about how the caseload was prioritised at various points rather than the difficulty per se of an individual matter.

Senator SESELJA: So it might be a slight statistical anomaly in that sense.

Ms Ransome : Yes.

Senator SESELJA: On the MRT, 2012-13 noted that it finalised 15,590 cases last year but to date this year it is already 17,774. It is good that more cases are being finalised. What is the difference for being able to finalise significantly more in the MRT this financial year?

Ms Ransome : It has generally been through the introduction of some different ways of dealing with matters and a concentration on reducing the backlog the tribunal had in the student visa and skilled visa categories. We have introduced hearing lists in a lot of those matters which allow significantly more matters to be dealt with in the same time frames.

Senator SINGH: In relation to complementary protection visas, how will this amalgamation affect the processing of complementary protection applications?

Ms Ransome : Complementary protection is a feature of the Migration Act. It is a further criterion which an applicant for protection may need. Any changes to complementary protection are matters for the Migration Act itself, rather than any effect upon the tribunal through amalgamation.

Senator SINGH: Alright. Mr Bowles, maybe I will put that question to you. But, specifically, was the amalgamation the rationale behind the return to ministerial discretion in light of this budget announcement? Obviously, there is the bill before the parliament in relation to that.

Mr Bowles : The answer to that specific question is no. The amalgamation of the tribunal has nothing to do with any change of arrangements around complementary protection.

Senator SINGH: The budget, you mean, has no relationship to—

Mr Bowles : Yes, the amalgamation of the tribunal has no relationship—

Senator SINGH: And the amalgamation has no relationship to the change to ministerial discretion?

Mr Bowles : No, none at all.

Senator SINGH: How will this amalgamation affect the processing of complementary protection—people on complementary protection grounds?

Mr Bowles : It is probably a question we can leave to the appropriate time—probably outcome 2 tomorrow, when I can have the right people here.

Senator SINGH: Where are you saying that should be?

Mr Bowles : It will be outcome 2, starting about 1.30pm. That talks about our humanitarian obligations. We can talk more specifically now. I can give you a broad answer around some of these things, but it would be best at 1.30 tomorrow. One of the things that we have tried to do is simplify the structure of the outcomes, as well. So you see that there are only three instead of six to try and do that.

Senator SINGH: So we can talk about complementary protection there?

Mr Bowles : You can, yes.

Senator SINGH: Okay.

CHAIR: Okay, we might call it quits. At two o'clock we will continue with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

P roceedings suspended from 13:01 to 14:01