Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Migration Amendment (Streamlining Visa Processing) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak to the Migration Amendment (Streamlining Visa Processing) Bill 2009 and to foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment to this bill. But let me be very clear, Labor strongly believes in preserving and enhancing the integrity of Australia's immigration system. This is a core responsibility of national government, something that cannot be neglected, under resourced or, even worse, contracted out. We must ensure that everyone who enters Australia, having been granted a visa to do so, meets the conditions of that visa and complies with eligibility criteria including health and security checks, checks which are in place for good reason—to maintain the safety of all of us. For this reason, we on this side will be supporting the bill.
The legislation presently before the House would amend the Migration Act so as to enable the minister to prescribe that certain groups of visa applicants be required to provide one or more personal identifiers—biometric data—in order to make a valid visa application. These biometrics include: fingerprints, facial images, audio or visual recordings and an iris scan or signature. Personal identifiers along with other traditionally recorded data, such as full names and dates of birth, help in verifying that a person is who they claim to be and, importantly, effectively connect that person to security, law enforcement and immigration information. These changes are intended to streamline the process which is already in place, where the data requirement may only be imposed after an application has been lodged. I do note that a substantially similar bill was introduced in the last parliament on 29 November 2018 but that bill, like quite a few others, was not brought on for debate and lapsed when the 45th Parliament was dissolved—hardly streamlining.
The minister's second reading speech to this bill sets out the history of the biometrics program, which began in a very limited sense in 2006 but was significantly expanded following the enactment of the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Act in 2015. This enabled the minister or indeed his department to cause to be collected personal identifiers for a range of purposes under the act. I note that the 2015 bill raised a number of issues which were required to be balanced by lawmakers in this place—not only national security and visa integrity but also critical questions of privacy and human rights. Labor raised a number of concerns in this regard then but, having raised them and seen them considered through parliamentary processes, did not oppose the legislation. This bill, through a new proposed subsection 46(2A) would require a person who is included in a prescribed class of visa applicants to be required to provide certain personal identifiers in a specified way for their visa application to be considered valid. And proposed subsection 46(2B) provides that the minister may, by legislative instrument, make the relevant determinations about the provision of personal identifiers. Such an instrument would be non-disallowable. But, importantly, these new provisions would not have the effect of expanding the class of persons who may have provided personal identifiers from that which currently is the case. This is a power the minister already has and a matter that this parliament has already and quite recently considered.
What we are considering now really is already streamlining; although, again, we haven't rushed to secure this efficiency. The delay in bringing this legislation on for debate since last November is yet another marker of the disengagement by this government from its fundamental responsibilities—responsibilities that the Minister for Home Affairs talks about quite a lot but hasn't paid due attention to when it comes to discharging his legislative or indeed his administrative responsibilities. This is about streamlining through providing that the requirement for personal identifiers can be at the start of the application process. We accept that what the government is doing is for good reason in protecting applicants from identity fraud and, of course, in strengthening our border security and national security—shared aspirations across this parliament.
I do note that the bill that was introduced in the previous parliament was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and that that committee then recommended that the bill be passed. It's important to note that this bill, while re-introduced as a new proposed act, is no different in substantive terms from that which was introduced in the last parliament. It is also important that the same can be said of the explanatory memorandum. That is also in the same terms as that previously introduced and previously considered by the Senate committee.
When I think about issues of national security in terms of our borders and the integrity and efficacy of our visa system, I remind members in the House and particularly members opposite, who don't seem particularly interested in talking about this, that next month a decision is to be made in respect of tenders to, in effect, privatise aspects of Australia's visa processing services. This is something which really is quite extraordinary. It is extraordinary that any Australian government would seek to contract out its obligation to determine entry into the country, let alone one so focused—rhetorically at any rate—on issues of border security and national security. It's extraordinary that this government won't speak about this—won't explain why it is going down this path, why the national interest is served by this process—much less seek to justify its decision-making in this place or to the wider community. I don't believe that the Minister for Home Affairs—and he will of course have an opportunity to correct the record if I'm wrong—has spoken about the visa privatisation proposal for more than two years. This is quite telling. It's also telling, of course, that the speakers list for this bill does not feature a single government member—not one—speaking to these important issues that the substantive bill is dealing with or these wider issues that go to the operation of our visa processing services and, indeed, the prospect of those services being privatised.
It is one thing that the Prime Minister and, indeed, the Minister for Immigration, the member for Banks, aren't speaking about this tender. They have recused themselves from the process due to their relationships with Mr Scott Briggs, and I make no criticism of them in this regard. This is the right thing to have done to ensure that conflicts of interest and perceived conflicts are avoided. That's the right thing to do. But it can't excuse the complete silence from the whole of government and, in particular, the Minister for Home Affairs. It can't. This is a billion-dollar decision that we are talking about. It carries far-reaching consequences: job losses, risk of data security breaches and risk to system integrity—visa fraud in particular. Further worker exploitation is also a likely consequence of a decision of this nature, and government members should be thinking about this in the context of this bill, which is intended to progress our shared goals to boost our security at the border. But they're silent too. They are silent on visa privatisation, its impacts and its consequences just as they are silent when it comes to this bill. And so I move:
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:
(1)notes that the Government's plan to privatise Australia's visa system will lead to:
(a)cuts to services, increased risk of visa fraud, worker exploitation, and data security breaches; and
(b)the loss of around 2,000 jobs Australia-wide; and
(2)urges the Government to stop its privatisation of Australia's visa system".
And so, in considering the bill and this amendment, let's remember what's been happening when it comes to visa processing, which is a disaster under this government. Surely we can do better in this regard when it comes to boosting the integrity of our immigration system at large and making improvements to its functioning more generally? Both matter, of course.
Modern Australia has been built on immigration, and that's something that's often rightly celebrated in this place on all sides of politics. But we must acknowledge that these foundations are being undermined. They are being undermined at a number of levels. Administrative changes which have led to the creation of the Department of Home Affairs—a bit of empire-building on the part of the member for Dickson—have devalued the critical immigration function at a structural level but also, as we've seen, at a cultural level, when so many experienced officials have left the service. It has devalued the important role of immigration services and settlement support.
These are important questions, and the context is very, very significant. In 2017 to 2018 the Department of Home Affairs processed close to 8.7 million temporary visas—student, tourist and temporary worker visas amongst others—which was a significant increase on the previous year, and this volume is forecast to continue to increase to perhaps 13 million per annum by 2026-27. There were also a large number of permanent visas granted in that time—162,000 under the migration program as well as over 16,000 under the humanitarian program. On this side of the House we are deeply concerned about how this government is handling this ever-increasing demand on our immigration system in the context of neglected frontline services across the Department of Home Affairs, as it is now styled. We know that this is having a very significant impact on visa processing times. People are waiting longer to be reunited with family members or even to settle. Visa processing times are out of control under this government, and those applying for partner visas are now waiting for more than two years.
We now have around 200,000 people on bridging visas in Australia. This is as eloquent an admission of failure on the part of this government as anything could possibly be. But what's the government doing about this? What's the government doing about successive ANAO reports? I've got to acknowledge my colleague the member for Bruce, who's highlighted the volume of visa processing delays and citizenship delays, which are also critically important. What he and members on this side of the House are concerned about is not just the statistics, shocking as they are, but the human stories that underpin them in a nation such as Australia—a nation built on immigration. These changes aren't measurable by statistics alone. They are shaping and diminishing individuals' lives, and they're diminishing all of us.
And what's the government doing about it? Instead of properly funding the visa processing system and instead of respecting the wonderful women and men who work for the Department of Home Affairs, who work for all of us in the critical functions of supporting our immigration program and maintaining our border security and our national security—these people are treated with contempt. They're being treated with contempt as workers, as is the value of the work that they do on our behalf. And this is a disgrace.
Can I put on the record my deep appreciation for those workers and my appreciation for the time that some of them have spent with me explaining the significance of the work they do, their pride in the work they do and their frustration that it is not properly acknowledged by a government that likes to talk about border security and the roles that it plays but that is not properly supporting them. Those workers should be supported. They should be acknowledged in the words of the minister and the government and, more fundamentally, in the deeds of the minister and the government. But, instead, we see the absolute opposite. Instead of properly supporting our visa processing system, the government is proposing to privatise the visa processing system. We know what this will result in because we've seen an experiment just like this in the United Kingdom.
I'd encourage government members to acquaint themselves with what has happened since the UK government introduced the profit motive to this aspect of their immigration system. What we have seen is the ability of very wealthy individuals effectively to jump the queue. What we have seen is a downgrading of services for ordinary people, a devaluing of their experience and their engagement with the system and, indeed, their connection to their country. There have been a series of shocking revelations in the UK, which are causing great disquiet in their parliament—which, of course, has been dealing with a few other things at the moment—and across the UK media.
I think people in Australia, a country to which immigration is so fundamentally important to how we are as a nation and to our economy, should look very carefully at what has happened in the UK and, at the same time, listen very carefully to those workers in Australia undertaking this work, because there are actually a few additional concerns above and beyond the prospect of the profit motive being introduced here. We are talking about the potential loss of 2,000 jobs—a number not of our creation but a feature of the government's own costings in the lead-up to the election. It was that side of politics over there, the members opposite, who put before the Australian people the prospect of sacking 2,000 public servants connected to this critical work. That's 2,000 jobs around the country—some in regional centres, where this will have an enormous impact, not only on the individuals and their families but also on the communities they live and work in. This is something that I urge government members to think about—think about supporting this second reading amendment and sending a message to those people that they are valued by some on the conservative side of politics.
We also know that there are two tenders proceeding, one of which, as I noted earlier, is very closely associated with Mr Scott Briggs, a significant donor to the Liberal Party of New South Wales and the LNP in Queensland too. We've heard recent revelations by the journalist Michael West of other donors being connected to this. These are things which are very deeply concerning, above and beyond the prospect of job losses: the prospect of creating two tiers of access to our visa processing system, the prospect of data security breaches and the prospect of further worker exploitation. It seems odd to say that in an environment where we have nearly 200,000 people on bridging visas, where we see wage theft connected to that that is absolutely epidemic across the Australian economy. It is not only impacting those vulnerable people on bridging visas themselves but also spreading across the entire labour market—an issue that my colleague the shadow minister for home affairs has put squarely before the government and across the community, including a number of organisations that are not traditionally the closest of allies to the Australian Labor Party, like the National Farmers Federation, but in respect of which the government remains refusing to listen.
Again, it is time for the government to clean up a mess that they have created—a mess that they have created by creating an empire for the member for Dickson, an empire which has devalued some fundamentally important functions. We are starting to see the consequences of that—economy-wide consequences and individual consequences. It's time to clean up the mess, not walk away good jobs and walk away from the national interest, and, most fundamentally, to do so without making the case for a decision. This is a billion-dollar tender—a billion-dollar tender going to fundamental functions of government—and yet they won't talk about it.
The minister will have an opportunity to sum up, and perhaps he might touch on the reasons, if he can find any, as to why he won't be supporting the second reading amendment, which puts squarely the Labor Party's view of how the national interest is to be served when it comes to visa processing. We support the substantive bill before the House because it is in the national interest to do so. We support and urge government members to support the second reading amendment because we know that visa privatisation is not in the national interest.
I second the amendment. I'll make some initial comments on the bill itself and then turn my remarks to the second reading amendment moved by the member for Scullin. Suffice to say, the bill is largely fine. It is largely uncontroversial. It was introduced last year, but the government was so serious about the bill that they did nothing with it, like much of the legislation currently on the Notice Paperreheated seconds! Of course, Labor does support integrity and the formalisation, in some respects, because a lot of this already happens but without, perhaps, the clearer legislative underpinning of the extension of biometric data to be required at the time of application as being important.
I just want to put on the record and amplify a couple of the concerns that were raised in the Senate report—in particular, that regarding the provision for exemptions. The bill does not provide, in the way that similar provisions in the act seem to, for exemptions from this in certain circumstances. There has long been a policy and a set of provisions across most of the visa categories for waiver of these kinds of requirements in emergency or compassionate circumstances, as well as compelling circumstances in the national interest—heads of state, heads of government, that kind of thing. But the emergency bit goes to many of our constituents, because it's the daily fare in electorate offices that people ring you in a panic because, for example, someone might have had an accident, they might only have a few days to live, and the family want their relatives to come out and say goodbye, or someone has had a terrible accident and the family needs someone to come out and care for children. Those kinds of things are the stuff of daily life, and, being in such a multicultural area, I see many people in my office relying on family and friends from all around the world.
The bill doesn't provide for these exemptions and the Senate committee pointed that out; government members raised those concerns, such as similar provisions being elsewhere in the act. I note the minister has stated, 'It's not intended the requirement apply to short-stay visas in emergency situations.' We have no further detail, so I'd invite the minister to repeat that commitment and perhaps explain to us how the government is actually going to provide that family members are able to quickly come to Australia and be with their loved ones—loved ones who have had fatal accidents, near-death experiences, all those other family emergencies—without always having to go through these ordinary checks. It is really important that this is true, because if it's not then the consequences at a human level would be very harsh indeed.
The other thing I'd just note—it's not a particular, but it does relate to these requirements and the further we extend them—is the difficulty for many people in many countries to actually meet these requirements, and I'd draw particular attention to the Pacific Islands. I've had groups come to me struggling to complete the visa requirements and to do things in person. When they're from island countries, they often have to travel for many days to get to the visa office where they can do this. I'd encourage the government to be sensible in applying these to certain countries where the physical geography would prevent people from doing this. We had a problem in that regard with a Scout jamboree. The jamboree almost couldn't happen because they simply could not travel to the main island to get the visa requirements met. So I trust that there will be sensible exemptions provided for the minister or the department to administer these provisions, as occurs elsewhere.
I want to go to the second reading amendment, which goes, in essence, to the utter mismanagement of the visa and migration program under this government and, indeed, the current department administration. The blowout in visa waiting times is part of the context, as the member for Scullin has observed, and I'd just draw the House's attention to two in particular. My electorate is one of the most multicultural in the country. Our constituent workload is somewhat peculiar compared to most members' offices. Visa, immigration and citizenship issues account for more than half of the things that we deal with every day. They outrank all of Centrelink, all of disability and even all of the NBN. All those things combined are swamped by visa and citizenship issues, and that has been getting steadily worse in the more than three years that I've been in parliament, as this government continues to cut staff from the department and we continue to see blowouts in visa waiting times for every category.
I'll now just touch on the two issues that cause the most tears, the most problems, in the office. One is partner visas. There has been an appalling, a quite unbelievable, blowout in the average waiting time for partner visas, which I believe privatisation is only going to make worse. I want to put on the record: you cannot get longitudinal data for this. The government won't provide it; they hide it. You used to be able to get this stuff, but they scrub it from the website now—all they will do, at a point in time, is publish what they say is the 'average processing time' for 75 per cent and for 90 per cent of the applications—but we have managed to piece together some data.
For partner visas, this is usually an Australian citizen falling in love and marrying someone overseas. That's the stuff of our everyday life in Australia; it's part of our social fabric, and has been for decades. It has always been the case that you're able to bring someone you love to Australia. The waiting time for partner visas in 2016, according to an answer to a question, was about 15 to 18 months—okay; there you go. As of 30 June 2017, for subclass 801, it was 18 to 22 months. Then we get to 30 June 2018, which is 16 to 23 months, so pretty similar. The current waiting time has blown out to 21 to 28 months.
What we've seen over the past four years has been a progressive increase. The human misery that causes is immense, cruel and doesn't actually stop people coming to the country. As the member for Scullin observed, the government's so-called cut to migration—this much trumpeted, 'We've cut migration; we've cut permanent migration to 160,000'—is a con, is a trick and is an absolute fraud. There are still people coming to the country, but they come on visitor visas and then they hang around for years on bridging visas.
That's why we have almost 200,000 people in this country on bridging visas. They often don't have work rights. Eventually they might get some Medicare rights out of the government in a limited way—if you're about to die we might let you see a doctor. But it doesn't actually save the taxpayer money. It still means they're catching the trains, driving on the roads, all that stuff. When we say we're busting congestion, somehow it's the fault of migrants that the roads are congested, not the government's failure to invest in infrastructure. This blowout in waiting times is coupled with this absolute fraud of the cut to migration. None of it is actually real. We just have people hanging around on other visas. They're not able to fall in love, marry and settle in the country.
The other thing I would like to draw the House's attention to is dependent child visas. This may sound esoteric. It's very hard to get any data on this, but in the last 12 months I've heard multiple cases of people, Australian citizens, who fell in love overseas, lived overseas and moved back to Australia. They want to bring their kids. It seems pretty reasonable. They're now waiting over 12 months to get the dependant child visa. It doesn't sound like a problem; they have the kids here on a visitor visa. But it is a problem, because they can't go to school. They cannot go to school without being charged international student fees. The kids are sitting at home. I had a family in Noble Park with kids sitting at home for six months. The family are terrified because they can't afford any more health insurance, and they think that if they leave the house and have an accident their kid might die. The department's response to this is that they will just have to wait, because until they get the permanent visa they can't have them attend school. This is unbelievable. This stuff goes on every day. It doesn't affect many members over there. You don't see it all in your electorates, but we do see it in many of the multicultural electorates over here. The human misery caused by the cuts to the Department of Home Affairs and the complete mismanagement is unbelievable.
The final bit of context that I would like to touch on is the blowout in citizenship waiting times. The Auditor-General tabled a report in February which found that over the last four years the waiting times have blown out by 771 per cent. When the Labor government left office there were about 30,000 people in the queue at any point in time. That was about normal. It took six to 12 months to get through, do the checks and do the test. Fine. As of 30 June last year, there were 244,765 people hanging around for years waiting for their citizenship. Again, you may think, 'What is the problem with that?' They're permanent residents of the country; they've been paying taxes; they've got a life here; but they are not able to consolidate their life. They are not able to get a passport in some cases, if they're humanitarian entrants, and travel. We've had students who need to complete their masters by doing a subject required as part of their degree in another country, who just sit here waiting for two years. We've had people not able to go to university because of the fee structure, because until they get their citizenship they're not eligible for a whole lot of stuff. Again, it's the complete mismanagement of this department. Unbelievably, part of the government's proposal is that after they've privatised the visa processing system there's a second stage, which is to privatise the citizenship-processing system.
I want to call this out for what it is. It's an old conservative government playbook, straight out of the UK. It's failed, as the member for Scullin pointed out. First we cut. Since 2016-17 this government has cut $180 million in funding from the Department of Home Affairs, and thousands of staff. First we cut; then we create a crisis; then we say: 'Look at those terrible public servants. They're not processing the visas. The only way to fix the crisis is to privatise. That's the answer.' So right now there's a $1 billion tender being considered, sitting in the department, sitting with ministers. Some of the ministers have to recuse themselves, as the member for Scullin said, because their Liberal Party mates are the tenderers. Thousands of jobs would be cut from Home Affairs, and these profitable contracts would be given to Liberal Party mates to process the applications to determine who comes into this country.
But if there's one thing that should be done by public servants in the public interest in a department of state, surely it's the assessment and processing of visa and citizenship applications. It determines who comes to our country. It determines who can stay in the country. It's extremely private information. We know it's private and commercially valuable because both of the consortiums of the tenderers have travel insurance agents and health insurers. You can imagine it: you start filling out the form; you say, 'I'm going to stay for 12 months'; and the ads start popping up, because they're sucking your data into private companies just for dealing with the government. I can't wait for the privatisation of Centrelink. They've already started that. That's another debate. There are 5,000 staff out now.
The government will tell us that we have to do it for better service at lower cost. It's true that we need better service. As I said, the department is completely broken. The staff satisfaction surveys came out a few weeks ago across 75 public sector agencies in the Commonwealth. Guess which one was number 75? The Department of Home Affairs. Morale in that department, under this minister with his dark heart and the secretary, master of the dark arts in the bureaucracy, is at abysmal lows. It is the worst place to work in the Commonwealth. That is absolutely appalling. This is an important department of state.
It wasn't like that before this leadership. The government has cut so many staff that the backlogs grow and the kids of Australian citizens are sitting at home not even able to start school. In desperation, I referred one of these cases to the Herald Sun in January—I couldn't get any sense out of anyone else. The Herald Sun said: 'Yes, that's terrible. We'll help you.' They went to do a story and then they rang the department. The department's media person said: 'Thank God! This is terrible. Maybe you guys can get some action. We get these calls all the time.' Still, not much happened. Eventually we did get the kids to a school. I thank the Greek Orthodox school in Oakleigh, which gave them half fees, and that is still going well. It was a really good solution. Thank you to the Herald Sun.
In closing, this is straight out of the failed conservative playbook. They cut the service to create a crisis. This is my prediction: firstly, the private operator will be a government mate and they'll introduce two fee scales. There will be higher fees for those who can pay for a premium service and sail through, and other fees for most Australians, like the people in my electorate, who are told by the Liberals to suck it up harder and wait. Then, over time, once the capability of the public service has been destroyed—this is a really important part of what they try to do: they destroy the in-house capability. We've seen it with employment programs. There's no-one left in the department that knows anything about an employment program. They just administer contracts to pay billions of dollars to private companies that get no-one a job. Secondly, once the capability in the public sector has been destroyed, the prices start rising, like we saw in the UK, because the private sector contractors have a monopoly by then. It's hard to the point of impossible for anyone else to compete. Then there'd be too many up-front costs to the government to later go, 'Well, we got this wrong,' and insource it, like we're seeing in the UK, and the taxpayer gets royally screwed for decades. Thirdly, you can bet your bottom dollar the private operator will donate generously to the Liberal Party.
My concern about the future service model is, firstly, that it was publicly reported that in industry briefings to tenderers the department noted the potential for offsetting the cost of building a new online platform by providing premium services. This is their plan! No wonder the minister won't come in here to actually talk about his billion-dollar tender to give the department to his Liberal Party mates. No wonder he doesn't want to talk about that. I know, and every member opposite knows, the response you'd get if you went into your electorate and said, 'Hey, we think we might privatise the processing of visas and immigration and citizenship—is that a good idea?' Punters in Australia know exactly what privatisation of these public services delivers. They've seen this in electricity and in gas in Victoria. They see it in Centrelink now, where no-one will answer the phone. They know what's going to happen if you get away with this. That is public-service-speak in that tenderer briefing for offering two different processing streams based on how much applicants are prepared to cough up. Of course, a private operator will follow the incentive—as they should. They're going to chase the higher profits. That's what they'll do. They'll chase the higher profits on the high-service fees and the premium visas and everyone else will wait at the bottom of the queue. This undermines the integrity of the migration program and creates a two-class system which is roundly un-Australian and should be rejected.
I encourage the government members, the few amongst them who may be prepared to think: have a look at Britain. The Conservative MPs are freaking out about what a mess they've made of this. They're looking at bringing some of this stuff back in-house. Insourcing is now a debate. The company Carillion collapsed in a billion-dollar tender, leaving the government with a mess of hospitals, prisons and services. And then they decided it was too big to fail, so guess who bailed it out? The poor old taxpayer steps in and pays more than if they'd just run the services properly themselves. The government has to abandon their plans to privatise visa and citizenship processing. If they don't, then at least have the courage, the guts and the decency—find a shred of honesty—to come in here and explain what you're doing. Be up-front about it instead of hiding from public scrutiny.
I would like to thank all members for their contribution to the debate on the Migration Amendment (Streamlining Visa Processing) Bill 2019. This bill enables the collection of personal identifiers to be a prerequisite to making a valid visa application. It supports the electronic lodgement of visa applications and efficient visa processing by the Department of Home Affairs. It also enhances the integrity of Australia's visa programs and helps to protect Australians from persons who are a criminal threat or a risk to national security. In summary, I believe that the bill deserves the support of all members, and I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Scullin has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is that the amendment moved by the member for Scullin be agreed to.