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Thursday, 29 March 1979
Page: 1353

Mr CHAPMAN (Kingston) -The Bill that we are debating this evening, the Passports Amendment Bill, proposes a number of significant additions and amendments to the Passports Act 1938-1973. It seeks to update and modernise existing legislation and practice by clearly embodying in the Act the reasons for which a passport may properly be denied and by increasing the range of offences and penalties. Since the responsibility for the administration of the Passports Act was transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs in March 1975 there has been a continuing review of the Passports Act and procedures. Legislation governing the issue of Australian passports has remained substantially unchanged since 1938. The significance of this legislation to the public is considerable. An average of something over 1,000 passports is issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs every working day of the year. Present legislation gives a general discretionary power to issue or refuse passports, but provides no guidelines. In keeping with the Government's commitment to civil rights and administrative justice, this Bill seeks to provide a proper legislative basis for passport policy and a clear legislative framework for the exercise of Ministerial discretion, which must continue to be an essential element in the administration of this difficult area. The right to travel, to leave and return to one's own country, is recognised as a basic human right. The withholding of a passport is likely to bring allegations that a basic human right has been denied. Hence, for a number of reasons, it is necessary that the legislation spell out as clearly as possible the reasons for which a citizen may be refused a passport.

A major interest which I have in this legislation is in relation to the problem of children being abducted and removed from Australia by one parent without the consent of the other. This problem particularly relates to situations of marital breakdown, both separation and divorce. A number of cases have been brought to my attention and I have become deeply involved in representations with regard to several of these cases. In this way I became aware of the inadequate provisions of the present legislation to cope with these situations. I should indicate also, that the honourable member for Hawker (Mr Jacobi) has done a considerable amount of work in this regard. I would like to commend the work that he has done on behalf of people who find themselves in this particular situation. I also mention the very dedicated work of Adelaide journalist, Dick Wordley, on behalf of a number of people who had found themselves in the tragic situation of having had their children abducted by the other parent. Dick Wordley has spent much of his own time and money in assisting these people to locate and retrieve their children from overseas.

Such was the public interest in this issue some two years ago that Adelaide television station channel SAS-10 produced a special program in which I, along with the honourable member for Hawker, Dick Wordley and the Commissioner for Community Relations, Mr Grassby, formed a panel to discuss the cases of several parents who also appeared on the program.

The extent of this public interest I believe highlights the seriousness of the situation. In order to further highlight that I wish to refer to one such case. However, for reasons of privacy I will not give the names of the particular people involved. This case began back in February 1 975 when the husband and father of the two children disappeared from the marital home and this effectively began the couple's separation. The husband had previously established a liaison with another woman. The mother and wife finally traced her husband and the children to New Zealand. At that stage she borrowed a substantial amount of money to conduct a search for the children in New Zealand which involved travel expenses, legal fees and fees for private investigators. Finally, after several months searching, she found her children in New Zealand. Following that, she instituted custody proceedings in New Zealand; meanwhile, her husband took off with the children and returned to Australia. He left a postal address for his wife and, by contacting him at that address, she arranged to meet him and the children in Melbourne. The day after the first meeting in Melbourne she returned ostensibly to take the children out for the day in Melbourne but instead returned with them by plane to Adelaide. Subsequently, at the end of 1975, the mother instituted custody proceedings in the Supreme Court. In the middle of 1976, this case was transferred to the Family Court. The first hearing of the case was towards the end of October 1976. The court finally gave a custody decision in favour of the mother in the middle of 1977.

However, following that custody case, the mother agreed to allow her former husband access to the children for one particular weekend. Following that weekend, the children were not returned to her. A warrant was issued by the Family Court in Adelaide for the return of the children. The warrant did not instruct the Commonwealth Police to undertake an extensive search for the children but only allowed them to return the children once their mother had found them. Subsequently, the Family Court issued a warrant authorising the Commonwealth Police to search motor vehicle registration records. It was during this part of the case that I became involved to assist the mother in her endeavours. I should say that at that time I received the utmost co-operation from officers of the AttorneyGeneral's Department. Finally, the Commonwealth police were instructed to take all possible initiatives to find the children.

At this time it was discovered that the children had left with their father- he having abducted them- on an international flight. So the search began once again. It has continued since that time in various overseas countries. Following my representations with regard to this case, I am glad to say that the Federal Government has recently agreed to make an ex gratia payment in the form of legal aid to the mother to assist in the return of the children to her as legal custodian. However, before that can occur the children have to be located and brought before a court.

The resume of that particular example indicates the sorts of problems that are faced by parents in a separated situation who do have the legal custody of their children when that child or those children are abducted by the other parent and removed from the country. As a result of that particular case and other cases, the honourable member for Hawker and I have pursued the need for changes in policy to minimise the opportunity for such abductions.

On 22 February 1978, the honourable member for Hawker asked a question of the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Peacock) whether an interdepartmental committee had been appointed to examine and to report on the issue of passports with particular reference to child abduction. The Minister answered that question on 8 March, indicating that an interdepartmental committee had been appointed and had reviewed recommendations from the Department of Foreign Affairs concerning the issue of passports. In that review, it had considered the incidence of child abduction. On 2 1 February this year, I placed a question on notice seeking from the Minister an indication what were the recommendations made by that interdepartmental committee on the issue of passports referred to in his answer to the question posed by the member for Hawker, and what action had been taken to implement these recommendations.

Only yesterday the Minister provided an answer to that question which stated that the interdepartmental committee, to which I had referred in the question, considered but did not make specific recommendations on the departmental review of passport matters. The Minister stated that the results of the departmental review and the interdepartmental committee consideration of it have been taken into account in the Passports Amendments Bill which is currently being dealt with in the House.

In taking account of that particular problem of abduction, the Bill continues the present practice of requiring the consent of a spouse or former spouse for the issue of a passport. This practice has attracted increasing criticism from some applicants for passports. Perhaps it has caused inconvenience and even distress on some occasions. However, I believe that it is necessary to retain that requirement for the practical means of protecting not only the financial rights of a spouse or former spouse but also to guard against this situation of child abduction and removal from the country.

The present procedure, which continues under the legislation, provides an opportunity for the other party to take legal action to prevent the applicant from leaving Australia, and thus possibly evading maintenance obligations, settlement of property matters, or of course the abduction of children. However, I understand that the need for the consent requirement will be significantly reduced when Australia becomes a signatory to the International Convention on Recovery Abroad of Maintenance and at that time the present practice will be discontinued. If and when that is discontinued, I hope it does not have a detrimental effect on the capacity of the legislation to hinder people who would seek to abduct children and to remove them from the country.

In particular, it is clause 8 of the amending Bill which inserts a series of new provisions into the Act. Some of these new provisions do relate to the problems of abduction. The insertions which in fact involve a new section 7 in the principal Act, list a number of categories of persons to whom passports shall be refused by authorised officers. Briefly, with certain exceptions, they include persons who are not married and who have not reached the age of 18 years, unless the consent of persons having custodial rights has been obtained.

That particular part of clause 8 is directed towards the problem of child abductions but it will not eliminate the problem of the removal of children from Australia since it can be by-passed by dual nationals who hold two passports, by the use of false documents, by making false statements, and by making application outside Australia for a passport. Nor does it overcome the problems of passports previously issued at a time of marital harmony. However, the clause does tighten passport procedures in this regard and provides additional protection to people who may fear the abduction of their children.

I understand it has been suggested that children should be issued with individual passports. After studying this proposal the Government has come to the view that this would not prevent the unauthorised removal of a child. Individual passports would also raise the possibility of the child taking the passport and leaving the country without the knowledge of either parent or being removed by another unauthorised person.

Increased costs would be incurred by large families. Further, there would be increased workloads in issuing separate passports for children. This work load could not be handled without an increase in staff. The proposed requirement for parental consent to the Issue of a passport to children who have not obtained the age of 18 years, which is embodied in the legislation, therefore provides the opportunity, so far as the legislation can practically go, to cope with this problem. Eighteen is the age at which, according to the Family Law Act of 1975, a child ceases to be under parental control. The present consent rule regarding passports applies up to 17 years; it was not based on particular legislation.

During the passport review by the interdepartmental committee, to which I referred earlier, it became clear that the problems of child abduction went beyond the simple matters of passport issues and a further interdepartmental committee has therefore been established to investigate all aspects of this specific problem, including the procedures which other departments and authorities could follow to prevent child abduction. I understand that that interdepartmental committee has now concluded its investigations and is reporting to Cabinet. After Cabinet has considered that report, an appropriate announcement will be made. I look forward very much to the announcement of Cabinet's decision on the report of that interdepartmental committee. Certainly I believe that Cabinet legislative or administrative changes are necessary to reduce the incidence of children being removed from Australia by one parent without the knowledge or against the wishes of the other parent.

Despite the fact that clause 8, through the insertion of proposed new sections in section 7 increases the effectiveness of the legislation, I still have some concern about its total effectiveness in coping with this problem. One of the major problems with child abduction concerns children whose endorsement appears on one of the parent's passports. I have discussed this matter with the Minister and, to overcome it, I seek his assurance tonight that all the provisions of the new sections in section 7 dealt with in clause 8 will apply to applications for endorsement on the passport of those entitled to custody of persons under 18 years of age as well as to applications for separate passports. I have been assured that this will be taken care of in the regulations, but I seek a further assurance from the Minister in his reply to the debate that that will occur.

I further seek the assurance of the Minister that the signature on the consent in writing required under new section 7A 2 (a) will be required to be witnessed by a justice of the peace, police officer or some other person of similar official status known to the person alleged to be giving consent. I believe that only in this way can maximum precautions be taken against forged written consents.

I have a further concern in relation to proposed new section 7A (2) (c) (i) and (ii) (A) and (B). I fear that there is a possibility that this proposed new section, which allows an officer of the Department to issue a passport without consent in writing, or in certain circumstances without a court order, may be exploited by those intending to remove abducted children from Australia. Therefore, once again I seek the Minister's assurance that the authorised officer will, in each case in which a passport is applied for under this proposed new section, conduct the most stringent inquiry into the bona fides of the applicant before issuing such a passport. I understand that the first one or two amendments proposed by the Opposition direct attention to these problems. But given an assurance by the Minister that appropriate action will be taken in the regulations, and in the administration of the Act, I would not support those proposed amendments. However, I most strongly seek such an assurance.

The ultimate solution to the problem of child abduction for separated or divorced couples is to ensure that separations or divorces do not occur. Increased emphasis must be placed on the sanctity and value of the family unit as the basis of our society. The Government, through its policies, has a responsibility to ensure that maximum support is given to the family and thus minimise the likelihood of marital breakdown with its subsequent problems, of which child abduction is one manifestation.

I turn to one other aspect of the Bill before I conclude. As well as its obligation to provide travel facilities to its own citizens, the Government as a responsible member of the international community, has an obligation to those countries to which its citizens travel. Australian passports contain a message from the GovernorGeneral of Australia requesting other countries to provide free passage, protection and assistance to the bearer. This imposes on the Government a responsibility to ensure that, as far as possible, passports are not issued to persons who are likely to threaten the national security and public order of another country, or the rights and welfare of its citizens. Of particular concern are political extremists and terrorists, drug pedlars and persons inclined to violent acts as a result of mental illness.

I am glad that once again the Bill reflects this concern. In particular, I believe that Australian authorities have a responsibility to limit the potential activities of drug pedlars. Whilst it could be argued that the denial of travel facilities to extremists, terrorists and drug pedlars could be in violation of a basic human right, I believe that the risk to the rights of others that is posed by these persons is a more important consideration. Therefore, I am glad to see proposed new section 7e inserted. It provides a basis upon which a passport may be withheld from such persons.

Recently, on my way to India to represent the Australian Government at the Commonwealth Countries' Conference on Government Policy on

Youth Affairs, I took the opportunity to spend several days in Thailand investigating the scurrilous trade in drugs. I intend to refer to that issue in more detail in the debate on the Customs Amendment Bill in this place shortly. However, in relation to the Passports Amendment Bill, suffice is to say that any action taken to stem this traffic has my wholehearted support. Therefore, I particularly welcome proposed new section 7E and commend the Minister for its inclusion.

With the qualifications that I have indicated in relation to this legislation, and having sought the Minister's assurances upon them, I support the Bill, oppose the proposed amendments and urge its speedy passage.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -(Hon.Ian Robinson) - Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

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