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Friday, 12 June 2020
Page: 2954

Senator KENEALLY (New South WalesDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:55): I seek to continue my remarks on this bill. Let's understand here that this bill will make changes to how migration agents are registered, specifically to how lawyers are registered as migration agents. The main purpose is to implement the recommendation of the 2014 review of the MARA, which recommended the removal of lawyers from the Migration Agents Registration Authority scheme.

This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 to remove the requirement for lawyers who hold practising certificates from registering as migration agents when providing immigration advice to their clients. This will be achieved by removing them from the regulatory scheme that governs migration agents. Lawyers will not go unchecked, however. Those who choose to provide migration advice will still be entirely regulated comprehensively by their own state and territory legal professional bodies when providing said advice. I hope that when this bill becomes law it will allow more lawyers to perform pro bono migration work for some people who need legal representation more than most in our society, including asylum seekers. Quality, fair and efficient legal representation is one of the pillars of our justice system and it should be treated with equal regard when it comes to migration law.

There have also been some minor and technical changes to this revised bill since its first iteration. This includes updating the academic and vocational requirements for applicants to be registered with the MARA; to complete the graduate diploma and Capstone assessment.

No fewer than six ministers or assistant ministers have had carriage of this legislation, including Senator Reynolds in her former role as the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs. However, the delay in abolishing the dual regulation of immigration lawyers rests squarely at the feet of the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton. As much as the Minister for Home Affairs avoids discussing the migration aspects of his responsibilities, he is the senior minister when it comes to the Department of Home Affairs. While there may be an acting immigration minister at present, Minister Tudge, Minister Dutton is ultimately responsible for the department, its actions and legislation.

It should come as no surprise that there were eight pieces of migration legislation the Minister for Home Affairs failed to pass in the last parliament. They sat on the Notice Paper for an accumulative 3,749 days. The current government has been in power for the past seven years and they are responsible for the administration of, as well as any amendments to, Australia's migration law. Their failures go to the heart of migration law in this country and how the failures of the current government impact the lives of real people. Even the supposed plans the government so enthusiastically spruiked, such as their plan to encourage regional migration, are in disarray—and they were in disarray before the COVID-19 pandemic. The government heralded the Designated Area Migration Agreements, otherwise known as DAMAs, as a solution for Australia's regional migration woes but, as of 31 December last year, prior to the pandemic, only two visas in the entire country had been granted under the government's new agreements—two visas, across six agreements.

We also have a government and a minister willing to ignore the symptoms that are presenting themselves when it comes to the abysmal health of Australia's migration system. Since I became the shadow minister for home affairs, I've sought to challenge the current minister's track record. And, while talking points may be a strength of Mr Dutton, his ability to oversee the Department of Home Affairs and his inability to arrest the emerging problems show how this department is plagued with his incompetence.

The health of Australia's migration system is dire. As of 31 March, there were over 281,000 people on bridging visas in Australia, the majority of whom would be waiting for the Department of Home Affairs to process their substantive visa applications. This has more than doubled since Labor left office in 2013. The processing time for 90 per cent of partner visas is currently at an astonishing 28 months. That's 2½ years Australian citizens are waiting to progress in their lives with their partners, their husbands and their wives. There are more than 180,000 people in that position—over 90,000 Australians and 90,000 of their prospective partners in a state of migration limbo. There are over 62,000 visa overstayers in Australia, and I doubt Mr Dutton knows where all of these non-citizens are.

All of these migration matters are only complicated further by the caseload of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As of 31 May there were close to 64,000 cases before the migration and refugee tribunal of the AAT. Case dates are currently being listed for 2022. The ever-growing backlog is not going to improve with ignorance or incompetence. These symptoms affect real people. They affect Australians. They affect the fabric of our society.

Minister Dutton is a minister with no plan for his department or the major issues facing Australia. You used to be able to trust this government to manage Australia's borders but, sadly, that is not the case anymore. Let's not forget Operation Sovereign Borders has bipartisan support, but, as the airplane people blowout shows, you cannot trust this government with our borders anymore.

Let's not forget Minister Dutton is the minister who lost control of the borders. We witnessed the explosion of airplane arrivals in Australia claiming asylum—people being trafficked to Australia on tourist visas in record numbers then made to apply for asylum. This minister, Peter Dutton, and the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, failed to notice when the people smugglers changed their business model from boats to planes. You simply can't trust this government anymore when it comes to borders. I notice the silence now emanating from the other side.

Given the fact that this bill has been an idea for six years you wonder when the minister will take some action to disrupt the people-smuggling operations trafficking migrants through our airports in record numbers—

Government senators interjecting

Senator KENEALLY: To those senators on the other side, it's not a funny subject. It shouldn't be a funny subject, but yet they find it amusing. Let me say this: there is nothing wrong with claiming asylum. It's an important right. But 90 per cent of applications, such as these, are eventually found to be without merit. Even the assistant minister, Jason Wood, warned of his own government's failures last February on this crisis, which is occurring on Minister Dutton's watch, and still Minister Dutton has not acted. It's no surprise, when you think about how long it's taken to simply pass this legislation, Minister Peter Dutton doesn't have a plan to deal with the record number of asylum claims occurring on his watch, with the blowout in processing time for partner visas and with the record number of people on bridging visas. And he has no intention to address the further exploitation and slavery-like conditions these trafficked people are experiencing here on Australian soil.

Finally, of course, there is the Ruby Princess, the largest outbreak of coronavirus in Australia. Mr Dutton failed to stop the one boat that mattered. Let's not forget 850 cases of coronavirus and over 30 tragic deaths, 10 per cent of all cases in Australia. The outbreak in north-west Tasmania is all linked to the Ruby Princess.

While state health authorities have responsibility under the federal Biosecurity Act, when it comes to Australia's migration program and our borders the buck is supposed to stop with the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton. Let's not forget it was the Prime Minister who stood up and said he was going to put arriving cruise ships under the direct command of the Australian Border Force. Four days after the Prime Minister said that, the Ruby Princess came into port and let everyone out, spreading—

Government senators interjecting

Senator KENEALLY: I note the interjections on the other side. Suddenly they're a bit more sensitive about border security. They don't particularly care about the slavery-like conditions of the people who have been trafficked here through their airports and made to apply for asylum, but, when you talk about boats and their failure to deal with the one boat that mattered, they suddenly get sensitive.

So here we are. They know what the Australian people now know, which is that you can't trust this government anymore when it comes to our borders, so I will always hold this government to account when it comes to the Home Affairs portfolio and the Migration Act. Labor will work with the government to support sensible reforms, as we are doing today—sensible reforms that took them only six years to bring into the parliament! We're glad this legislation is finally before the Senate. It took only six years and three prime ministers, but here we are, finally, today. And I am pleased to tell you, Madam Deputy Acting Speaker, that Labor will support this sensible, overdue, long-awaited reform.

Maybe now the Minister for Home Affairs could get on and deal with the excessive backlog of partner visas and bridging visas, with the backlog at the AAT, with the fact that the Department of Home Affairs ranks 93 out of 93 departments when it comes to morale and with the fact that a third of the people who work in Home Affairs would rather work somewhere else. Maybe he could get on with the Future Maritime Surveillance Capability project. I mean, it took only six years to do this simple piece of legislation! Maybe now that he's cleared this big project off his plate, he could get on and deal with some of the substantive issues that are plaguing the Department of Home Affairs. And I haven't even mentioned the Paladin cost blowout and the massive waste of taxpayer dollars there. Given that the Minister for Home Affairs has finally managed to get this substantive piece of legislation off his desk after six years, maybe he could just get on and deal with some of the bigger, more pressing problems that are facing real Australians in our community and could clear up some of the backlogs in his own portfolio. Incompetence is not an excuse for his maladministration.