House debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2020


Migration Amendment (Regulation of Migration Agents) Bill 2019, Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Amendment (Rates of Charge) Bill 2019; Second Reading

4:51 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Regulation of Migration Agents) Bill 2019 and the Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Amendment (Rates of Charge) Bill 2019. Labor will not oppose the passage of these bills in this House, although I will be putting before the House a second reading amendment highlighting some matters that we wish to consider and wish to see considered through the Senate committee process before finalising our position on these bills, which do serve an important public policy purpose. It will highlight that this is an area where the government could and should have acted much more expeditiously.

The Migration Amendment (Regulation of Migration Agents) Bill 2019—perhaps I might refer to the first bill as the substantive bill—would have the effect of amending the Migration Act 1958 to deregulate an important aspect of the migration advice industry—in particular, the current treatment of lawyers—by removing those lawyers who hold unrestricted practising certificates from regulation by the migration agents registration body. Lawyers would, accordingly, no longer be required or able to register as migration agents and would be registered in accordance with the requirements of their particular professional body. The second bill is a consequential piece of legislation, amending the Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Act to ensure that migration agents who paid the non-commercial registration application charge in circumstances corresponding to their current period of registration but who give immigration assistance otherwise than on a non-commercial basis are liable to pay an adjusted charge. Almost all of my remarks will go to the first bill, the substantive bill.

These bills were introduced into the House on 21 June 2017, but they have a history which goes some way beyond that. Indeed, they go back to recommendations made by the Productivity Commission in 2010, but substantively to 2014. These bills, in fact, contain recommendations from the 2014 independent review of the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority, the Kendall review. The review was designed, as you would probably be very well aware, to improve the effectiveness of the regulatory scheme governing migration agents, a scheme which has had quite a history. I don't propose to go through all of that now.

What I will touch upon is that of course this bill is about a deregulation proposal. It is a broadly sensible deregulation proposal, but it is one that's taken the government quite some time to get around to giving effect to. In fact, I've been in this place long enough to remember when the now Treasurer trumpeted the bonfire of deregulation—the time also, of course, of the horror budget of 2014.

But on this area, an area that is fundamentally important to an immigration nation like Australia, the government has failed to act. And one of the main reasons I'm putting forward a second reading amendment, and why the opposition wants to consider in detail its position on the bill through the Senate committee process, is that there are some aspects of the government's own process of consideration of this bill that remain outstanding—in particular, a response to the work of a Senate committee commissioned by the former minister responsible for this, the former Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the member for Mitchell.

The review that is the genesis of this—although I will again briefly touch on the Productivity Commission's work as well—recommended the removal of lawyers from the Migration Agents Registration Authority scheme. This is part 1 of the review, and this bill would partially give effect to that recommendation. Again, it is a recommendation that has been before this government for more than five years now. Indeed, it has sat before this House for some time and then was not put to a vote in the Senate prior to the dissolution of the last parliament. As I've said, the bill would amend the act to remove the requirement for lawyers who hold full practising certificates to register as migration agents when providing immigration assistance to their clients. By being removed from that regulation scheme, lawyers can't register as migration agents and would be entirely regulated by their state or territory professional bodies when providing this advice as well.

It also ensures the time period in which a person can be considered an applicant for repeat registration as a migration agent and removes the 12-month limit within which a person must apply for registration following completion of a prescribed course. The bill requires the agency to refuse an application to become a registered migration agent where that applicant has been required to but has failed to provide information or answer questions in respect of their application. In respect of the transitional arrangements for legal practitioners with unrestricted certificates, the bill would require them to be removed from the scheme with automatic effect from the commencement of schedule 1 to the bill.

The bill also includes amendments to allow the agency the power to refuse an application, as I've touched on previously. I also touched on the relationship between the substantive bill and the bill dealing with charges, which also makes certain other amendments. When this change was first recommended, many years ago now, Labor supported it, and we still support the principle. But, for the reasons I've outlined previously, I seek now to move the second reading amendment I foreshadowed, and that is:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:

(1) the recommendations that informed this bill were made in the 2014 Independent Review of the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority;

(2) the Government first introduced these measures in 2017, but let them lapse at the end of the 45th Parliament; and

(3) for over half a decade, the Government has failed to properly manage the laws relating to migration agents in Australia, to the detriment of the industry and those that rely on it".

And we do, in Labor, think it's prudent and proper to have a thorough examination of this legislation, which carries very significant consequences for hundreds of thousands of Australians and their family members.

Things have changed in this area. This is a very dynamic area of public policy, and regulation needs to be equally dynamic. I note that a number of submitters to the previous bill inquiry in 2017 haven't yet put forward views on the bill that's presently before the parliament. One that I'd like to highlight in particular—one of the reasons I think this change in regulation is important—is to better enable pro bono migration assistance to be provided by registered legal practitioners. That was a matter that was highlighted by the Refugee Council of Australia back in 2017. I note that they haven't put forward a submission on the present bill, but this issue of access to justice is one of the important reasons that, in principle, this sort of approach should be pursued, in Labor's view. It's a matter that I would like to see confirmed in the course of this.

One of the key issues before us in seeking to get the right regulatory environment in place is to ensure that consumers are protected. All of us in this place know that too many Australian consumers who are so vulnerable when it comes to these immigration questions have not been protected when it comes to the work of migration agents—work that, often, they personally are unable to warrant. They are very vulnerable as consumers. So it's vitally important not only that we get the regulatory framework right in terms of consumer protection but that we can provide confidence to those consumers too, and it's for that reason as well that this bill should be subject to a proper review.

One of the reasons we know that the environment within which this bill operates has changed is that we've now had the report of the inquiry into the efficacy of the current regulation of Australian migration and education agents. In that very report, the assistant minister who introduced this bill, the member for Latrobe, said that there is exploitation and that a loophole is being exercised by organised crime to come into the country, an observation by the minister who introduced this bill into the House, no less. So Labor does believe that these laws deserve a proper inquiry. As I understand it, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee will report its findings by 18 March 2020. On this side of the House, we await the findings of that process.

We will not be opposing these bills in the House today. We will wait and see the result of the Senate inquiry. We will give all the stakeholders and the wider Australian community an opportunity to be heard, particularly those who are personally directly connected to the migration industry and are personally affected by the regulatory arrangement that goes to migration agents and lawyers who operate in the field as well. We want to make sure their views are properly heard and properly considered and that the principles that underpin this bill—principles that have been supported by the Productivity Commission in 2010, the Kendall review in 2014 and Labor for quite some time—are properly put into law so that all of us in Australia who depend on the efficacy of such a system can have confidence in it, going forward, and in these fundamental questions of access to justice, consumer confidence and consumer protection being upheld. So I urge members opposite in particular to consider carefully the second reading amendment and the obligation all of us have to have regard to those views before finally determining this piece of legislation.


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