House debates

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009

Second Reading

1:06 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | Hansard source

in reply—I thank the members for their contributions in this debate. I will take up the admonishment of the member for New England. I do not want to belabour the point of divisions in the coalition. I just want to recognise the particular contributions of the members for Kooyong, Pearce, Hughes and McMillan.

Only yesterday, I spoke to two visiting schools from my electorate, Auburn West Public School and Granville South Public School. I gave them the same message that I give to every school that comes to this parliament, which is that parliament is not just about question time and the rancour of the day, the exhibitionism and the attempts to get on top of one another. Parliament is based on a large degree of cooperation. People work through committee processes. The government of the day does not usually exercise its majority position. Both sides seek compromise and seek accommodation to get a majority report which has an effect on the government. That is an important part of the debate. It is a point that those four speakers clearly stressed.

The joint committee on migration matters gave serious consideration to these matters. It heard witnesses, listened to individuals and examined the realities. They did not come to the debate with rhetoric, scare tactics and a lack of information. So I want to very much recognise the contributions of those four members. Often in parliamentary life we do not agree with our party. If anyone says that they agree all the time, they are liars. But very rarely do we see people who have the courage to take that to its ultimate limit. I recognise their role in these matters.

I will not reiterate the nature of the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. We have been through that. Essentially, the bill seeks to clearly drive home that a fair and effective immigration detention policy and strong border security are not incompatible with fairness. I note, as I did a moment ago, that in introducing this legislation the government has accepted and acted upon the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Committee on Migration report of last December, the first of three reports from its current inquiry, Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning.

This resolution was unanimous—and I stress that it was unanimous. People who are now trying to disassociate themselves from it, run into the corner, hide away and say that they were not part of it could have—as done in this other report by that committee, Immigration detention in Australia: community based alternativesput in minority reports or put in dissenting comments. That did not happen. For people to come in here many months later and say that somehow they were not watching the game, they missed out on being part of it all or they have had second thoughts because new realities have emerged is absolutely ridiculous.

In making its unanimous recommendation, the committee commented on the administrative inefficiencies of the policy, noting that less than three per cent of the detention debt invoiced since 2004-05 has been collected. This was during the period of the previous government. The level of waivers and written-off debts has nothing to do with whether the Labor Party or the Liberal Party have been in government. It has been a reality throughout the time that this system has operated. Less than three per cent has been recovered. The reality is that the policy is ineffective. It is all right to say, ‘We’re going to look tough; we’re going to hold the line; we’re going to talk a lot of rhetoric on these issues.’ But the policy is ineffective—everyone knows that.

That committee—and I say again that it was unanimous—said:

The practice of applying detention charges would not appear to provide any substantial revenue or contribute in any way to offsetting the costs of the detention policy. Further, it is likely that the administrative costs outweigh or are approximately equal to debts recovered.

This conclusion is further supported by recent information. We note that in regard to the 2008-09 year the cost to the department of administering detention debts will be approximately $709,000. I heard one of the opposition members saying, ‘Oh, we’ll have some system that will not cost anything to collect money.’ That is preposterous. Realistically, people do not walk up and give you the money. We have to pursue it, and it costs money; it costs taxpayers money. This year, the cost for this year will be $709,000, and $477,000 has been recovered.

The joint committee also focused on the adverse impact of detention debt on those who either remained in Australia or who had connections to the country, citing concerns about:

… the burden on mental wellbeing, the ability to repay the debt, and the restrictions a debt could place on options for returning to Australia on a substantive visa.

The following concerns were raised with the committee:

… detention debts are a source of substantial anxiety to ex-detainees, and may impede the capacity of the ex-detainees to establish a productive life …

The committee made particular reference to the adverse impact detention debt often had on the mental health of former detainees, noting that the imposition of a significant debt often prolonged or exacerbated mental health problems. The committee referred to the limited earning capacity of many people on their release from detention, and the financial hardship that substantial debts caused.

I particularly note, as I did when introducing this bill last week, that unanimous recommendation 18 to repeal the liability for immigration detention costs had the support of all coalition members on the committee—most notably, the opposition immigration spokesperson, Dr Sharman Stone. I note that there was some suggestion from the members opposite that the member for Murray had not in fact endorsed the committee report. I think that I dealt with that earlier. I also wonder about the member for Murray’s interview on Sky News on 2 December 2008. When asked if she welcomed the report’s recommendations, the member for Murray said, ‘I do.’ That sounds like an endorsement as far as I am concerned. In the context of the unanimous and bipartisan recommendation of the committee, it is extremely disappointing that the opposition has decided to oppose the bill.

Much has been made of the fact that the detention debt was introduced by Labor in 1992. That is correct. But we are happy to acknowledge and act when a policy is not working. On any estimation, this policy has failed. The opposition may be content to stick with failed and punitive policies like detention debt and temporary protection visas, but this government is interested in good public policy, not the politics of scare mongering.

The opposition’s stated rationale for opposing the bill is simply not supported by fact. The bill does not represent a softening of Australia’s border security. Firstly, let us make it clear that the broader argument that there is any cause and effect relationship between the movement of asylum seekers and our domestic immigration policies is false. Dr Rosalind Richardson of Charles Sturt University has studied the issue—she has actually done some work on it. She interviewed asylum seekers and asked about these matters in a systemic way. She found that none of the people interviewed arrived in Australia with any detailed understanding of Australia’s immigration policies.

Secondly, while the opposition may prefer denial and obfuscation, the facts demonstrate that push factors are driving irregular movement to Australia. The majority—


Jonathon Singleton
Posted on 6 Jul 2009 10:23 pm

Mr Ferguson, thank you for pointing to and reiterating the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Migration report of December 2008, the first of three reports from its current inquiry, Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning...

I was particularly drawn to this comment, "The committee made particular reference to the adverse impact detention debt often had on the mental health of former detainees, noting that the imposition of a significant debt often prolonged or exacerbated mental health problems..."

Basically, as an immigrant, I can understand fully the damning psychosocial effects flowing from the cultural underbelly of Australia -- immigrants are considered "criminals" and second class to "true blue" Aussie born citizens.

This unspoken cultural paradigm is alive and well and takes its toll in many forms upon the mental health of all immigrants, not just those detained (imprisoned) for illegally entering this country, and later, given permission to stay with detention debts.

I commend your sense of decency and humanity, Mr Ferguson. And support your efforts in having the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 passed into law.