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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10433

Dr STONE (9:09 PM) —I want to talk about my concerns about the government’s activities and lack of activity in the Immigration and Citizenship portfolio. We have a Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, who I am sure is well meaning but we have had a series of disasters in the last 12 months which are making a number of Australians wonder what happened to us as a humane society and what is going on as they imagine piles of files on the minister’s desk waiting for some sort of decision. These piles do not just represent paperwork and bureaucrats tinkering at the edges; they have in fact embedded within them people’s lives and people’s futures.

For example, every minister of immigration over the years has exercised their discretion or, if you like, their intervention powers which are enshrined in the acts that are associated with immigration policy. This minister is very nervous about exercising his discretion. He has made it public, earlier in his time as minister, that he does not really want to have any discretion or intervention powers. He has called on a special report, which has now been completed by Elizabeth Proust, to look at the whole business of government intervention. He seems to want the bureaucrats to be able to handle every case strictly according to a set of rules and regulations with no capacity to actually make decisions on a case-by-case basis, which in the case of immigration is absolutely essential.

No set of regulations or rules can take on board all the nuances, all the variations and contexts of an individual’s circumstance—for example, if they have a disabled child and want to migrate to this country. Or if they are in this country and they applied for permanency under conditions, for example, like putting $100,000 up into state Treasury bonds. They apply with goodwill and meet the criteria on the table only to find the rules change and then, 12 months later, they are left in limbo. Some 5,000 individuals—overseas students, skilled workers in the country and offshore—have their $100,000 Treasury bonds in their hands. They properly applied and in 12 months nothing has happened to resolve their cases.

In the case I mentioned of disability, amongst the files stacked up on the minister’s desk, I presume, or in a dark corner, there is the case of the midwife in Western Australia—she does not want her family name to be mentioned—who has a daughter with Down syndrome. Their case has been waiting for ministerial discretion, having reached the end of the whole business of ministerial tribunal reviews for a very long time now. This is extremely unfair. You can imagine the stress on the family and on the child. They are a skilled couple. The mother of the child with Down syndrome is in an occupation in great demand in Australia—she is a midwife—they are of exemplary character and I think it is plain unfair that they, as in the well-known case of Dr Bernhard Moeller, are being treated as a statistic and something bureaucracy should deal with.

The minister is too slow, or perhaps has his priorities elsewhere, to act and resolve these cases. I ask Minister Evans to urgently look at the Elizabeth Proust review, the one that identifies where he should go with his ministerial discretion or intervention powers. She recommends that he should continue to exercise these powers. I urge the minister to release his response to that review which has been, like the other material, sitting on his desk for quite a long time now.

Then we have the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. It comes into the Senate tomorrow and will be in the House of Representatives on Thursday to be debated. This migration worker protection bill actually has a quite solid framework embedded within it. It is of course a framework that has evolved from the creation of the first 457 visa category which the coalition government put into place in 1996-97. We do not have a problem with the framework. It talks about greater compliance, covering more of the costs associated with sponsoring a skilled migrant, better education and information flow. The problem with the bill is that the regulations, which of course will contain the detail, are not yet ready. The report of the Barbara Deegan review, which was commissioned to inform the regulations, is on the minister’s table. We have not seen that report. We have had a Senate inquiry take place without the benefit of the information from that Deegan review. The bill comes into the House this week. It will be debated. We do not know what the regulations look like. We are told that the regulations will probably be tabled some time next year.

That is simply not good enough. It is asking us to buy a pig in a poke. The 457 visas are very serious business. We want protection for all of our workers in Australia, whether they are temporary or Australian born and bred. I was amused or amazed—perhaps a bit of both—by a full-page advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald today from a number of unions saying, ‘Shock horror, 457 visa workers are being monumentally exploited.’ The statistics I can get from the department say only about 1.7 per cent of cases of 457 visa holders are exploited. I have asked for more details on that ratio, but you have to wonder why the unions—which, after all, put this government into power—are showing such exaggerated concern. The bill is coming in this week. There are no regulations and the unions are saying, ‘What can we do about the 457s?’ I wonder if there is some other agenda on their plate. Perhaps they want to become the agents recruiting the 457s in the future. After all, one of the proposed regulations is that the costs of associations or other memberships associated with employment in Australia will be met by the employer. I ask the minister most urgently to get his act together and get into place the regulations for the worker protection bill.

And then there are the guest workers. ‘Guest worker’ is a new visa category. It is perhaps the biggest change to migration policy this country has seen for half a century. This introduces temporary, unskilled workers to do harvest labour. These workers are coming from the Pacific. They are to come here for seven months. It is a trial, a pilot, for three or so years and 2½ thousand workers are meant to be on their way. In fact, they are meant to be here right now, at the beginning of this harvest labour season. We have still not had identified the three pilot areas in Australia. We have been told one may be Swan Hill, one may be Griffith and one may be Stanthorpe, but also we have been told, ‘Don’t get your hopes up for your areas because we haven’t quite decided yet.’ We have been told, ‘Oh, yes, it’s probably going to be PNG, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tonga who will supply the workers, but the MOUs are not signed yet.’

In this case we do have the regulations—just three. They are so loose and obscure you could drive a truck through them. They only tell us that there will have to be a secretary approved organisation to be involved in the identification and employment of the workers, that families cannot come and that these people have to apply from offshore. That is it. We have not been told yet, no-one knows, exactly who is going to be responsible for what costs—for example, their airfares, their medical insurance, their accommodation, their transport to and from the nearest town—once these workers come into the country or who is going to manage their shifting from property to property if they are not able to be employed for the full seven months by one orchard. The workers themselves no doubt are seriously worried. There has been built up in the Pacific an expectation that there would be about now a New Zealand type guest worker program. There will be huge embarrassment for us in the Pacific if this government’s bungling and inefficiency means that we do not have these guest workers delivered before Christmas. Indeed, they should have been here for fruit thinning, which began a month ago in Swan Hill.

Meanwhile, the horticulturalists in the harvest sector have been led to believe that there will be workers coming to support them this year. They too are already beginning to believe that it is not going to happen. What an embarrassment. What a cause of great concern for the efficiency of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, or DIAC; of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, or DEEWR, which I underatand is a lead agent; and of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT. None of those these agencies has been able to get themselves together to deliver a guest worker program. All they had to do was copy New Zealand, basically. New Zealand has been doing this for a little while now. They have had lots of consultations with New Zealand and they tell us they are following New Zealand’s model, but they have not been able to get their act together and deliver. So I repeat what I said at the beginning: I am seriously concerned with the way immigration policy and practice is going in this country, with the way it has been going for the past 12 months. I have not even mentioned the debacle of four groups of unlawful arrivals heading towards Australia because they have had mixed messages about new border law and border security protection from this government. That is of great concern. I was in Indonesia 48 hours ago and they are concerned too. (Time expired)