Monday, 22 September 2014
Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014; Second Reading
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on these important amendments to the broader suite of migration legislation that we have in this parliament. It is important to reflect a bit at the outset on why immigration is so important and fundamental to our society. More than half of my electorate of Banks has at least one parent born overseas. People in Banks come from all parts of the world. Banks has the largest number of people of Chinese background of any electorate in Australia, as well as people from the Middle East, Europe and many other places. The diversity is one of the things that makes our community so great and one of the things that makes Australia such a great place. Your country of origin or your religion does not matter; the only things that really matter in this country is that you participate in our society, that you play by the rules and that you make the most of your citizenship. That is why our immigration program has been so successful.
Immigration, I think, comes down to two sets of policy priorities. One is national self-interest; by driving a strong immigration policy we help to improve our economy. There are many areas of the economy where immigration has helped to build industries—as far back as the Snowy Mountains scheme and IT is a more recent and prime example. The other one is the humanitarian aspect. As a wealthy country we do have an obligation and a responsibility to help people from some of the most devastated places in the world. We have a strong tradition of doing just that. In order to provide compassionate relief for people who are fleeing some of the worst places on earth you need to have control over the system, because at the point where you throw your hands in the air and say, 'This is all too difficult to control,' you lose the integrity of the system, you lose public support for the system and you lose the capacity to effectively manage your own borders. That is something that this government will never allow.
We have been in office for just on one year, and I thought it would be useful to reflect on some of the achievements in that time—and they have been substantial. As I said before, to have confidence in the system we need to have confidence in the integrity of our borders. We did see under the previous government extraordinary mismanagement—one of the greatest examples of the mismanagement of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government was the failure on our borders. In the 12 months prior to the last election, we had 400 boats arrive on our shores. Let's not pretend for one minute that there is any humanitarian benefit from such a system, because we know that under such a system people place their lives in peril at the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers. We know that the vast majority of those journeys ended in heartbreak and despair. We also know that people who were in camps and other locations overseas waiting for a refugee place were directly disadvantaged by those boat arrivals. I will come to the Special Humanitarian Program in a minute.
Since we have been in office and since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders, only one boat has reached Australian shores—400 in the last 12 months of the Labor government, and one since December last year. That is a very substantial difference, and it is something that this government is justifiably proud of.
There is an important economic benefit too: when you have control over your borders, your requirement to detain people in detention is obviously reduced. As a consequence, we have been able to close down four immigration detention centres: Scherger in Queensland, Port Augusta in South Australia, Leonora in Western Australia, and, of course, Pontville in Tasmania. The benefit to doing that is close to $100 million per year. It is about $90 million—that is the economic benefit of closing down those detention centres. Nobody wants detention centres in operation. We all want a situation where people are not arriving illegally, where they are having their applications assessed on their merits, and where, consequently, detention centres become less and less relevant. We have already seen that benefit with four of them closed down; a benefit of about $90 million a year.
The other point is the very important humanitarian dividend that we have seen from the activities of the government in the past 12 months. Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are familiar with the special humanitarian category of visa. This is for people who do not quite comply with the strict definition of a refugee under the refugee convention, but nonetheless are often in desperate circumstances—often waiting in refugee camps, in the Middle East and other places. Perhaps for technical reasons, they do not comply with the rules for being a refugee but they are nonetheless really in a very bad way. Under the previous government, because the refugee intake was so overwhelmed by illegal boat arrivals, the number of people who came in on special humanitarian visas had dropped to a trickle—less than 500 a year. These are people who are following the correct process and waiting, often in a refugee camp, in an appalling situation but who for some reason do not quite comply with the definition of a refugee. Those people were very badly done by under the Labor government—that group of admissions had slowed to a trickle because the places were taken by illegal boat arrivals. We have changed that now, and it is back up to 4,000 per year under the special humanitarian process. That is something which is a great humanitarian benefit.
It is important to reflect on what the opposition thought about the government's border protection policies when those policies were implemented. If we cast our minds back about 10 months ago, to about November—you will recall at the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, there was a lot of discussion about whether the government's border security policies could work; whether it was possible to stop the flow of unlawful boat arrivals; and whether it was possible—logistically, technically and legally—to turn boats around, as we had said we would do. If we go back to 9 November last year, the shadow immigration minister said: 'We have had Indonesia from day one saying they won't accept tow-backs…it was inevitably going to fail'. And that is what we saw yesterday. That was in relation to turning boats back around. And on the same day, the Leader of the Opposition said: 'There is no doubt in my mind that the coalition's boat-person policy is just absolutely not working.' That was on 9 November 2013. I suspect he would revise those comments, were he to make them today. But they do demonstrate why leadership is so important in this area—because the government did take some very difficult decisions, but they have been very successful, and they have had a humanitarian benefit.
We know the record—or lack thereof—of the opposition in this space: an $11 billion blow-out in border security costs; 8,000 unlawful arrivals in the 2011-12 financial year, at a cost of almost $180,000 each—so that is a huge number of people coming in because of the porous border security policy that we had in place; and there was inefficient management once they arrived. The cost to taxpayers was $180,000 each—just completely unacceptable. We should never, ever forget—and this is a mark of shame on the previous government—that they then spent $2 million advertising their border security policies, supposedly to people smugglers, including in our regional newspapers and radio stations around the country—where, I suspect, not many people smugglers were active. That is a huge contrast: clear failure by the previous government, and clear success from this one.
We are going to add to that success with some important changes which are proposed in the bill before us this evening, the Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014. The first change is in relation to protection visas. This is to make clear a fundamental principle and a fundamental point of law—that is, that in applying for protection the onus is on the applicant to make their case. So the applicant for asylum needs to demonstrate, to the best of their ability, why they comply with the relevant criteria of the visa that they are seeking to be granted, and then advocate the reason why they believe they should be allowed to receive that visa. And the bill makes clear that it is not the role of the government or the departmental decision maker to advocate on behalf on the applicant; because there is, of course, a conflict involved in being both the decider of the outcome and also the person who is advocating on behalf of the applicant. These proposed changes make it very clear that it is the responsibility of the applicant to put forward their case. Of course, provisions are made for people who are unable to advocate on their own behalf, such as children and people with other significant disadvantages. But the general principle is that if you are seeking asylum, it is incumbent upon you to advocate on your own behalf. That is entirely as it should be.
The other point about the non-refoulement obligation is important too. You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that a moment ago I was speaking about the special humanitarian visa category. These are, as I said, people who do not comply with the formal definition under international law of a refugee, but nonetheless are in desperate circumstances. This group was heavily disadvantaged under Labor, because there were no spots left for them because of unlawful boat arrivals. But we have now got that group back up to about 4,000 a year, which is a significant intake.
This bill provides a clarification which says that the task for the minister and for the department to consider, in assessing one of these applications, is whether it is more likely than not that, should that person be returned to their home country, they would suffer serious difficulties and significant harm. That was the test under the 2012 legislation that was introduced and it is the same test that applies in the United States, Canada and various other places.
The Federal Court last year in the SZQRB case changed the standard to what they described as a 'real chance' of significant harm, and that could be as little as a 10 per cent chance. So you can imagine from an assessment perspective, if the requirement is that there is only a 10 per cent chance of significant harm occurring, that makes it very difficult to differentiate between who should be granted a special humanitarian visa and who should not. By going back to the original intention, which is more likely than not—so effectively 50 per cent plus one—we reinstate that integrity into the system and we say if it is more likely than not that you will suffer significant harm then you comply under these provisions.
Other important changes relate to some technical matters about unauthorised arrivals applying for visas. There were some technical distinctions where an applicant who was on a bridging visa would in some circumstances have to apply under a different regime than someone who was also here unlawfully but was not on a bridging visa. That did not add any value to the legislation; it just created confusion. The change here means that in the vast majority of cases unlawful maritime arrivals, when they go through that visa application process, will follow the same process, the same piece of legislation, the same documents and so on.
Finally, there are some important administrative changes to the MRT and the RRT processes that were requested by the tribunals themselves. They go to things such as the ability to give an oral statement rather than it being required to be given in writing, to be able to dismiss an applicant's matter if that applicant fails to show up when they have been given full warning that the matter is to be heard and various administrative provisions which are important.
Building on an exceptional track record of success, these changes will take our immigration system forward further. I commend the bill to the House.