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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 8

Senator MURRAY (1:01 PM) —The Australian Passports Bill 2004 and its attendant bills, the Australian Passports (Application Fees) Bill 2004 and the Australian Passports (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2004, comprise a timely addition to the body of law governing Australia’s national security, especially in a world now facing the ever-increasing risk of terrorist attacks and of identity fraud. As Senator Bartlett has outlined, the Democrats have concerns with the bills as drafted. These bills, which replace the Passports Act 1938, will strengthen the probability of uncovering identity fraud and the possible misuse of passports by terrorists and other criminals through the introduction of facial biometric technology to verify identity. Additionally, under these bills the penalties for passport fraud will substantially increase.

However, what has not been addressed in this debate so far, or in the attendant publicity and information surrounding the bills, is the problem with the way in which Australians presently find themselves abused by our system. In the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 June 2004 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Alexander Downer, was cited as giving his assurance that these new powers would be administered fairly and that natural justice would be preserved. He was cited as saying:

The government’s policy is that Australian passports should not be used as an extension of the judicial system and should not be expected to impose any more restraint on an individual than a court would be prepared to impose.

It is these concepts of fair administration and natural justice concerning identity fraud that concern me with this new passports legislation.

To illustrate my concerns, I would like to draw attention to a specific and fairly recent example concerning the mistaken identity of an Australian citizen returning home after a trip abroad. In October 2003, my electorate office received via email a confidential submission for the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into children in institutional care. This submission was from an adult male who had been put into the care of Parkerville Children’s Home in Western Australia as a young child. There, he was subjected to such cruel treatment that he absconded regularly, only to be found and returned—and that is a common story for many of those who were abused in institutions. At the age of 14 he finally succeeded in absconding, making his way up north, where he secured work as a jackaroo. He states in his confidential submission, No. 93, that his tragic and traumatic time at Parkerville will remain with him forever. He remained working in the pastoral industry for many years and received many an award, including an excellence award for jackaroo of the year.

Another form of abuse, known as secondary abuse to those who understand this field, was to plague him in his adult years. With thoughts of overseas travel, he applied for a passport for the first time in 1999. When he did so, there was some confusion over his actual identity, because when he gave his name and what he thought was his birth date he was told that he already had a passport, which he did not. When asked for details of his birth and parents in a subsequent interview with a passport official, he could not supply this information as he just did not know—an all too common problem for the hundreds of thousands of those who have been raised in care in Australia. On producing his drivers licence a passport was issued.

In mid-2002 he was to fly to Holland with his fiancee to meet her family, only to find after intensive searches that he had mislaid his passport. Again, there was confusion over his identity, but this time he was actually interviewed by two federal agents. His fiancee flew back to Holland without him and eventually another passport was issued. Unfortunately, when he was finally able to join his fiancee overseas, his passport was stolen. When he reported this and went to collect a new one, he was given a new ID by the authorities in the name of the person they believed him to be. However, on attempting to book a flight home, he was told that this person had never left Australia and that he could not fly. So began another attempt to sort out his identity and passport at the Australian embassy in The Hague. Eventually, a travel document was issued to allow him to fly back home, but yet again it was in another name.

On arrival back in Australia last November, his nightmare continued with his immediate arrest at the airport by the Federal Police and subsequent detention. He then appeared in court on a charge of making false statements to procure an Australian passport, and his application for bail was refused on the grounds that he was a flight risk. At no time throughout these circumstances was it ever apparent that anyone from the department, the authorities or the police had any idea that identity issues are a major problem for hundreds of thousands of Australians who have been in care. The matter was eventually dismissed by the court.

The distress and frustration this Australian citizen experienced at being accused of deliberately defrauding the government to obtain an ID for a passport cannot be underestimated. Even though he is no stranger to abuse, considering his time spent in care as a child, this form of secondary abuse has caused him unnecessary pain and suffering. He somewhat poignantly writes that these events have:

... stirred up a lot of old nightmares and pain which I had thought were forgotten. The biggest issue I have is the stigma of being in Parkerville and being treated by authorities as a nobody and now being expected to prove who I am.

What is more, in spite of his embedded distrust of authority figures, he patriotically writes:

I am not seeking compensation or publicity. I am not seeking to embarrass my government. I am not looking for anything other than my name and my life to be given back to me. I am proud to be an Australian, I am proud of what Australia stands for and I am proud of what I have achieved given the circumstances of my early childhood.

This example of alleged passport fraud goes a long way to arguing the case that it is imperative that ‘fairness’ and ‘natural justice’ are safeguarded in these new bills and, more importantly, safeguarded in the exercise of authority under these new bills, especially for the people who are still searching for their true identities after being raised in care. Indeed, the search for identity for these people is a particularly onerous and frustrating task. Poor record keeping and the destruction of records by fires, church and other organisations or under government department orders has often made it nigh on impossible for them to either find or reconnect with family members or use the documents for more official practical purposes such as obtaining a passport. Right now the Senate has an inquiry into privacy, but there are miserable creatures who refuse to allow a change to the terms of reference which would allow for these sorts of issues, such as whether at times privacy principles need to be adjusted for people who cannot access their records and are denied their identity, to be assessed.

The August 2001 child migrant report Lost innocents: righting the record devotes a whole chapter, chapter 6, to the vital issue of identity. There are 40 pages to the chapter and it has 17 recommendations. I remind the Senate that this was a unanimous report, but if you were to ask the ministers or the officials responsible whether they are acquainted with that report and chapter I would venture to suggest that they are not. Of course, that report has been followed up by a further report, Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, by the same committee—again a unanimous report—which again focuses on the issues of identity for, I repeat, hundreds of thousands of Australians. The great difficulty we have is that I very much doubt that successive ministers and their key officials have even read the report. Nor is there a system of automatically red-flagging a child migrant or a person in care to an official who would be aware of these identity issues. It is obviously impractical for an entire department to be aware of them, but it must be possible for a system to be introduced where, when there is a specific identity issue, there are people who are experienced in that area.

Like Jews in Nazi Germany, many of these Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and child migrants were known by number, not by name. It is a disgrace. Many had their names changed and their identity perverted by the good and charitable who ran those places of abuse. The loss of identity has had enormous practical implications for former child migrants. With no birth certificates they have experienced difficulties in obtaining passports and other documentation. It is also true of those Australian born children in institutions: those who were deserted by their parents, orphaned or simply handed over to the authorities frequently have no means of tracing their background and identity. Where is that issue attended to in the statements of ministers, the reaction of government and the examination of these bills? And this is when they have had two reports by the Senate unanimously recommending attention to these areas. Moreover, most former child migrants and others in care have discovered as adults that they were not even recognised as Australian citizens. Imagine the effect this has on these people, Defence Minister, especially when many—and this is typical of institutional kids—have fought for this country and went to war for Australia.

At the time this bill was to be debated in August last year, my office had yet another request—and there have been many—for assistance from a former child migrant planning to travel back to the United Kingdom to visit the grave of his mother whom he had never met. When he applied for a passport he learnt that he was not classified as an Australian citizen and, as he had spent time in prison—I should add that this is something not uncommon for victims of brutal institutional life—he faced possible deportation. The Senate committee recommended that the issue of citizenship should be dealt with sympathetically for people in those circumstances. Needless to say, the devastation and angst he experienced when informed of this situation was soul destroying for him.

You only have to speak to experts in organisations like the Child Migrants Trust, a wonderful and badly underfunded service provider, or the Christian Brothers Ex-Residents and Students Services, who provide a very good service trying to deal with this area, to realise what a huge issue identity is for Australians who have been in institutions—all 500,000-plus of them: the Indigenous Australians, the British and Maltese child migrants and the non-Indigenous Australians. I despair of those from a privileged silvertail or landed gentry background who have a decidedly un-Christian disdain and disregard for people with these unfortunate backgrounds and a visceral antagonism to the people and agencies trying to help them. This is a government that at times seems to revel in a harsh reputation, safe and secure in the knowledge that too many Australians care little about how the unfortunate or the disadvantaged are treated. Yet I am not without hope. I know that there are very many good people in the government ranks, and those people should join us in urging the government as a whole to give due consideration to ‘fairness’ and ‘natural justice’ in the administration of the powers under these laws for those Australians whose identity has always been hidden from them.