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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8008

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:08 PM) —I will speak briefly on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Special Benefit Activity Test) Bill 2002. I believe the bill is important and I think it is appropriate as Leader of the Democrats that I emphasise the concerns of the Democrats about the bill and that they be put on the record. The bill relates not so much to the activity test but to extending—

Senator BARTLETT —I beg your pardon?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Senator Bartlett, address the chair.

Senator BARTLETT —The bill extends not so much the activity test regime but, more importantly, the breaching regime to people who are on temporary protection visas. In our view, this is completely unacceptable. The Democrats have a longstanding policy of opposition to temporary protection visas. Indeed, it was the Democrats who moved in this chamber to prevent the introduction of temporary protection visas in September 1999. It is a matter of ongoing frustration and sadness that we were unable to get support from the Labor Party at that time. We now have many thousands of people in the Australian community—refugees—who are on temporary protection visas. Temporary protection visas are anti family: they keep families separated. They are also a clear form of discrimination against people who are part of the Australian community—a group of people who have been acknowledged and assessed as refugees, who are treated differently and who are given fewer rights than others in the Australian community.

This bill, in a way, re-emphasises that. The only payment that these refugees are eligible for is special benefit, unlike any other person who gets a long-term visa— what used to be a permanent settlement visa—and who has access to other payments. They also do not get access to settlement assistance because—using the wonderful twistings of the English language that the immigration department is so good at—even though they are refugees and we have given them a visa to stay here for three years, they are not settling. Of course they cannot settle because they are not allowed to as they only have a temporary visa. The facts show that the people who are the quickest to take up citizenship, something that I think all of us encourage in people who move to this country, are refugees. As soon as they have that opportunity to become citizens they do so much more quickly than people who come on business or skilled migration visas, and also more quickly than general family reunion visas. The temporary protection visa actually prevents people from settling in Australia and from contributing to Australia; it leaves them literally unsettled for a long period of time. Indeed, under the new temporary protection visa regime that was passed through this chamber in September last year, it leaves them unsettled permanently because their temporary visa can only be renewed with another temporary visa.

So the Democrats believe that strong emphasis needs to be given by all parties and by all in the community to recognising the need to abolish the incredibly unfair and destructive temporary protection visa. Not only is it harmful to the refugees themselves but, in the view of the Democrats, it is counterproductive to the Australian community that people who are part of our community are treated differently and prevented from being able to settle and contribute effectively to our community.

That spills over to our opposition to what this bill is about. We are already punishing these people. We believe that opening up the possibility of their being subjected to breaching when they are already given less assistance and are in a less advantageous situation than others in Australia is unconscionable. While parts of the bill mean that adopting an activity test will provide some access to services that they would not otherwise be able to get, those services should be automatically available, and they should not have the threat of breaching hanging over their heads as part of that.

The Democrats have amendments to ameliorate a few aspects of the legislation to at least make it slightly less harsh than it would otherwise be, but that does not detract from our overall opposition to the legislation. My understanding is that this bill will not even be a savings measure. Usually when we introduce these sorts of compliance requirements and social security payments, part of the argument is that it is a saving to the taxpayer for people who will not comply. The Democrats would argue that the complexity required in implementing this change to the special benefit payment is not suited to this type of action and, given the small number of people who are affected, all of them refugees and all of them vulnerable, it will actually cost the taxpayer. So we are spending money to punish people and to make life even more difficult for them and to make them more likely to be kept in poverty. That is a ridiculous approach and it seems to the Democrats to be driven simply by an endless need to continue to target and grind down refugees who are a part of our community. Once we treat one group in our community in a negative way, the doors will be open, the principle will be there and it will be just as easy to do the same to another group in the future. That is why the Democrats believe it is important to defend basic rights and to defend people such as refugees. That is why we will continue to do so and that is why we oppose this bill.