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Tuesday, 30 May 1989
Page: 2998

Senator ALSTON(3.58) —I shall be brief in concluding my remarks in the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill 1989 and the Migration Amendment Bill 1989, which are very important Bills. Several matters are worthy of further consideration. One which has been brought to my attention since I spoke yesterday evening relates to a particularly grubby and shoddy press release by the Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Robert Ray, when it was first indicated that the Opposition and the Australian Democrats had serious reservations about the form and content of the original legislation and sought to discuss the matter with the Government. Instead of adopting the statesmanlike position that has been adopted in recent days, when the Minister has been prepared to negotiate what we think is ultimately a sensible conclusion, the Minister simply resorted to cheap criticism and abuse and said, for instance:

The Opposition and the Democrats have placed political expediency ahead of logic and principle in their decision to oppose the . . . Bill.

He accused us of having rejected the chance to bring greater logic and justice to the administration of the immigration program. He claimed that we had either not understood the issues involved or had become the unwitting puppets of a small group of vested legal interests, or a combination of the two. He decided to defame the legal profession for good measure when he said of the Bill:

A campaign against it had been orchestrated by a small group of people from the legal fraternity, who had a vested interest.

Finally, after accusing us of opportunism, he said:

Any discussion though-

that was an invitation to the parties to consider the form of the Bill-

will be based on the clear understanding that the Bill's fundamental principles will remain intact.

Ultimately, what happened was that the Government saw the merit of the arguments that it simply was not good enough for the Minister to wash his hands of a number of the hard cases that inevitably present themselves for decision. He was not prepared to acknowledge that it is not a matter for bureaucrats to be forced to make those sorts of judgments; it is a matter for a Minister exercising political power to withstand the vested interests, to not cave in to any unfair or unwarranted interference, but to make the right and sometimes courageous decisions. I would have thought that this Minister would have had the political capacity and the intestinal fortitude to have withstood those sorts of pressures, but the sort of language he used was that the situation as it currently stands is open to political interference and to petty favouritism of the worst kind. He has now entirely accepted our argument that it is not appropriate to devolve discretion or responsibility to the bureaucracy; indeed, that it is proper that the Minister retain discretion. He says that, presumably, against the background that the discussions that would take place would not compromise the legislation's fundamental principles. If this is not a fundamental principle, it is hard to understand why he had to resort to that sort of violent language in the first instance.

The joint select committee that will be established, as I understand it, has one additional element-that is, to include a Democrat member. It is our expectation that the provisions of the Bill will be reviewed by that committee after a period of two years. We would certainly not object if there were to be an independent review which would then report to parliament on the operation of the Bill or, indeed, if there were an assessment of it by the Administrative Review Council.

I understand there is also a provision in relation to the limits that will apply under the floating pass mark arrangement that would apply a cap to the concessional family quota, but would leave uncapped the priority area. I would not like there to be any misunderstanding of our understanding of the position. I think it is an important matter of principle. We were determined-I think the Government has accepted the validity of the argument-that there should not be a compromise or an arbitrary limit imposed on the entry of those in the priority category and, if necessary, restraint would have to be imposed in the concessional category in order to enable the numbers to continue to come in under the priority area. We welcome the proposed restructuring of interline arrangements to prevent abuse of embarkation cards and to halt what has apparently happened in the past-when people have swapped cards and used boarding passes which were not their own. We also welcome the easier arrangements which will now apply for the prosecution of those engaged in illegal fishing activities.

I conclude by saying that the Opposition regards the final outcome as satisfactory. We take great pride in and credit for the fact that, despite all its bluster and bravado, the Government was prepared to stand the matter down, to give some serious consideration to the arguments advanced by the Opposition and, ultimately, to accept all of those recommendations which we regarded as fundamental. I think the outcome is a great tribute to the persistence and determination of those on this side of the chamber who saw the need to ensure that when we have a new and updated Migration Act, it will be one that is very much in the interests of all those parties to migration proceedings. It is a very difficult area of human relations and one that must be handled very sensitively. We think there has been a vast improvement in the approach that the Government originally had in mind. The nation will be stronger as a result of the amendments.

We look forward to an indication from the Minister during this debate that undertakings will be given to fund some specialised support agencies. On the basis that the Minister will outline the amendments which have been provided to me, I do not see the need to go into any greater detail at this stage.