Monday, 22 September 2014
Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise to speak in support of the Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill. The overriding objective of the amendments in the bill is to enhance the integrity of Australia's immigration system. This is an incredibly important thing. This is a subject close to my heart. It is my firm and abiding belief that many of the inherent and distinctive features of our country have been forged on the enormous and longstanding success of our immigration system. This system has helped us to be great, has made us the lucky country that has made its own luck, and has meant that people from all over the world want to live here. Our immigration system has also supported our renowned fairness, openness and tolerance as a society, making us proud to be Australian. But, just as importantly, it has underpinned our extraordinary economic success. Since the end of the Second World War, our generous and open immigration system has welcomed huge waves of new Australians from all over the world. Moreover, Australia's immigrants have made lasting contributions whilst rapidly becoming Australian in every meaningful sense. Our ability to do this, so successfully, and for decades and decades on end, is unparalleled across the world.
Australians have not only welcomed migrants for a very long time; we have also, for a very long time, collectively recognised that strong migration has been critical to our success as a nation. I have no doubt that most, if not all, people in this place, across both sides of the House, believe that strong and sustained migration remains critical to our future. It is critical to our economic success and to our identity. Key to understanding the historical success story—and I would argue essential to its continuing success—is a relentless focus on skilled immigration. From the Snowy Scheme through to the present day, our guiding principle has been a visa system which encourages and incentivises migrants who fill critical skill gaps. It is not to say that we accept only those whose skills we need. Consistent with our international and humanitarian obligations and also because we are a generous people, we will always welcome many people who do not have skills, and we do this for many and varied reasons. So we will always welcome into this country people who are fleeing persecution. That commitment has been central to our ethos and it should never be in doubt.
But our ability to do our fair share amongst those nations in the world who can and who are able to continue to give refuge to truly displaced people—people fleeing persecution from circumstances that are unimaginable to most of us—rests absolutely on an ability to maintain integrity in our immigration system. By 'integrity' I mean and the government means truth and honesty. This aspiration is unremarkable. It means that those who qualify for a visa for whatever reason—whether it is a visa which recognises a person's skills or a visa that recognises protection under the refugee convention—should have such a visa. The quid quo pro, of course, as in any system which has integrity, is that those who do not qualify for a visa should not get one.
As I said, the overriding purpose of a great number of the amendments before us is to maintain and, indeed, enhance the integrity of our immigration system. It is vital that genuine claims are processed as quickly as possible so that those who are entitled to stay can stay and get on with becoming great Australians; but it is equally vital that those claims which are not genuine are rejected. Why is that? Because the historical integrity of our immigration system has made us a truly great immigrant society. Our ability to do this—to welcome those who have grounds to stay and, at the same time, to say 'no' to those who do not—is what sets us apart from other immigrant nations. It is crucial to understand that there has always been an underlying economic rationale for this approach to immigration, which stems back to Federation and well before. Fortunately, we moved well beyond the White Australia policy, and our current immigration policy is and should be blind to race and religion. But we should never forget that there has been a longstanding consensus between Left and Right in Australian politics that immigration needs to be controlled.
Indeed, Paul Kelly points out that this need to control immigration was central to what he described as the 'Australian settlement'. He has pointed out that the union movement was always a strong supporter of controlled immigration, particularly for unskilled immigrants, driven by its desire to avoid creating a low wage underclass. The other side of the House forgets this point at its peril. Martin Parkinson, the outgoing Treasury secretary, has recently pointed out that Australia has been unusual in its ability to maintain relatively high wages for the unskilled. I believe that we should be proud of that fact, but a shift to an uncontrolled intake would endanger the egalitarian and tolerant ethos which is so central to being Australian.
Compare us with the United States and many European nations. Many years ago they either relinquished or lost control of their immigration systems. Indeed, in the US, this was institutionalised early in its history via slavery; but, more recently, it has struggled to control its southern border, with the result that uncontrolled Hispanic immigration is putting continual downward pressure on unskilled wages. Worse still, parts of America and Europe have seen swathes of illegal non-citizens living in ghettos, with no rights to citizenship or health and education services. This creates increasing disadvantage, puts massive downward pressure on unskilled wages and, therefore, increases inequality across all of society. That we have amongst the highest real wages in the world and, therefore, one of the highest living standards makes us absolutely distinctive. It makes us fairer. It makes us more unified, less class conscious, and it therefore makes us more tolerant. Controlled immigration is central to Australia as we know it today, and most of us envisage it in the future.
So that we can continue doing what we have always done—welcoming those who truly need our help and those whose help we really need—we must be vigilant about maintaining integrity in the system. Under the last government, we must understand that the integrity in the system was under serious strain. Our onshore processing was overwhelmed and buckling. In recent years—right through the last government's tenure—we have had and continue to have unprecedented numbers of people, tens of thousands of people, coming or trying to come to Australia. Some have come by boat but a great number have also come on airplanes, with passports and visas of many kinds, from all over the world. They are students, travellers and relatives of Australian residents. Many of these people wanted to come to Australia to stay. Applications became backlogged, and departmental staff and merits reviews under the relevant tribunals charged with oversight of these claims are still under enormous strain. The backlog has been substantially caused by the arrival of more than 800 boats and the more than 50,000 people who arrived on those boats.
The department has been required to spend millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars in simply administering these claims. The process has become unwieldy and slow because the system is overwhelmed. This policy disaster not only cost lives and about $12 billion; it also diverted attention from our regular migration programs and impacted on our humanitarian intake. In other words, the previous government's incompetence not only permitted the unauthorised arrival of more than 50,000 people, it threw our ordinary immigration processes into chaos. It threatened the longstanding integrity of the immigration program that we had become so proud of and that is so central to our history.
This government has put a stop to those outcomes. But the backlog that remains as a result of that incompetence is enormous and continues to cost millions. And while the boats are stopping, there are still many people who arrive on planes with passports and visas that appear to be legitimate, who then make protection and other visa claims. These amendments in large part apply to these applications. The amendments before the House will help to ensure that those who are entitled to a visa get one, and those who are not entitled do not.
Departmental officers and tribunal members currently experience great difficulty in making decisions when visa applicants lose or deliberately misplace identity documents, or simply refuse to provide them. Likewise, the tribunal encounters difficulties with the manufacture by applicants of falsified documents to support protection visa claims. The review process often becomes laboured when claims differ markedly between the application stage and the review stage in the tribunal. These changes in claims can be about identity, background and even substantive claims concerning persecution. The amendments to the act provide the tribunal with to the means to reject claims in these circumstances. In doing so the bill before us provides incentives to applicants to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all stages of the process. The amendments go a long way towards preventing exploitation by applicants who are not genuine. This not only enhances the integrity of the entire process, but also enhances the integrity of the outcome.
There are a number of other amendments that will enable decision makers in both the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Migration Review Tribunal to improve processing times and efficiency, such as being able to dismiss applications in respect of people who simply do not turn up at their allotted time for review proceedings, and also being able to deliver oral, rather than written reasons. Currently, tribunal proceedings can get delayed and bogged down by applicants whose objective is to do exactly that. These amendments will help the tribunal put a stop to this. It will help get the tribunals get through their horrendous backlogs. Of course, it will also accelerate long-awaited genuine cases and ensure they happen much faster. Importantly, the principal members of both tribunals support these amendments. Again, they are an example of the government's commitment to enhancing the integrity of our immigration system.
But, consistent with the government's commitment to fairness, the amendments contain protections for vulnerable applicants and for applicants who are children. With these new commitments, and with new provisions in place to encourage timely decision making, genuine applicants, vulnerable applicants and child applicants have absolutely nothing to fear. The applications of those who are exploiting the system can be more readily and appropriately dealt with. These are outcomes that we all want, and which we should have in a system with integrity.
One dividend of the success of our system is a generous humanitarian intake, which I emphasised in my first speech. Refugees have played an extraordinary role in the history of our country, and we should accept as many as we can without unwinding our immigration system and without threatening our extraordinary history of social cohesion. As we regain control of our immigration system after the disastrous experiences under the last government, this humanitarian dividend and intake should increase. We must get the timing right, but we will have the scope to do just that.
I am confident that as we regain control of our borders, we will be in a position to dramatically reduce, and ultimately even see the end of onshore detention. Again, the timing is critical, and we should never adopt any policy that risks returning to the disasters of the last government. But we also know that onshore detention is far less important in deterring people smugglers, if it is impossible to arrive illegally in the first place. This would be an added dividend from our successful policies.
The strength and integrity of our immigration system is a central feature of our history and prosperity. It is a feature that we cannot celebrate enough. It has been an economic success and a humanitarian success. Our great country has been a unique case study into social and cultural cohesion across many cultures and races, and we should do everything we can to preserve that cohesion. I commend the bill to the House.