Wednesday, 2 September 2020
Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] I'll pick up where I left off, and that is to ask the government and the minister to do their job, not to go ahead with another dog whistle—this bill—but to do their job in the Home Affairs and Immigration portfolio, because, frankly, they haven't. When you look at the substance, there has been absolute failure. There have been processing delays of years. People are waiting years for their citizenship or their partner visa applications. Waiting times have exploded under this government. With respect to permanent residents going towards citizenship, the government has actively tried to make it harder and make it take longer for people on permanent residency to become citizens. The program makes people choose between parents for parent visas. There was a multimillion-dollar strategic review into the Department of Home Affairs that was finalised last year and never made public. What are they hiding?
We have a Prime Minister who makes a big show, a big song and dance, complaining that Australia is full, saying there's too much congestion in our cities and blaming that on there being too many migrants. He makes a big boast that he reduced permanent migration—and this happened before COVID-19—in order to do congestion busting. In actual fact, under his government and over the seven years of the coalition government, those opposite have increased temporary migration. There are 2.2 million people in this country on temporary work visas, 87 per cent of whom are in Melbourne and Sydney. So this government has increased temporary visas and then claims it is busting congestion by reducing permanent migration.
So while the Minister for Home Affairs laments the strain on our capital city infrastructure—and, by the way, they should probably invest more in infrastructure, which is absolutely necessary—and talks about overcrowding, his own department and the Prime Minister are contributing to that strain by increasing temporary migration while undermining our proud history of the strong permanent migration program that has been the basis of the economic, social and cultural success of this country post-World War II. We need a recommitment to that permanent skilled migration because it's about making sure that people come here, become Australians and want to become Australians. Many people on temporary migrant visas want to do that as well. They should be given that opportunity rather than being delayed and blocked by this government.
On the treatment of refugees in this country, we saw the department under the Minister for Home Affairs repeal medevac after the election. This was an attempt to ban those who arrive by boat from ever setting foot in Australia. This was another of the bills which they tried to put up. Even if they were a tourist or a spouse, apparently they were going to be banned. I recall how ridiculous that was when I and the Labor Party opposed that at the time. A refugee who might end up in New Zealand and potentially become a minister in the New Zealand government would be banned from ever arriving in Australia. This is how ridiculous their overreach is. This is how they're not doing their job. Effectively, what they're doing is dog whistling and trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator through this portfolio.
Australia is a successful multicultural country. It is a reality of Australia that we are diverse and we are multicultural. This government should actually be promoting the fact that we have been world leaders in generations past in welcoming both migrants and refugees. We are a successful multicultural nation and we should be celebrating this success rather than trying to suppress it. We need an Australian government that embraces and recognises the strength of multicultural Australia instead of punishing and demonising those who have come here seeking a better life.
The government needs to rethink this bill based on the suggestions that Labor through our shadow minister for home affairs has put to the government in writing, although I won't hold my breath that they will reconsider. We oppose this bill for the reasons I've articulated: the human rights issues, yes; and the further power grab by an out-of-control and unchecked Minister for Home Affairs, yes. But this is also because it's the latest in a long, sad line of attempted legislation that has at its core—and there's no other way to describe it—political skulduggery, pathetic wedge politics and dog whistling clothed in the fake solemnity of national security. It is nothing of the sort. It is, however, an appeal to the lowest common denominator: fear. It is indicative of their go-to political weapons: fear and the demonisation of the most vulnerable into the bad guys that we should all fear. All of this is just to score political points.
That is not leadership. It is not looking after the substantive national security issues and policies needed within this portfolio. It is instead the politics of division. It seeks, by its very nature, to divide us. This government and this minister have a dismal track record of using all the usual tropes of ethnic and sectarian difference to sow discord while pretending they're protecting us from threats unseen. It is a direct threat to the social cohesion that we have built up over decades in this country. It's another terrible attempt at fear for votes that only further diminishes our well-earned and fought-for social cohesion. For these reasons, as well as for the substantive reasons that I've outlined, Labor and I oppose this bill.
I rise to express deep and sincere concerns about the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020, the lack of evidence upon which it stands and the disturbing signal it sends about our collective values. I stand to give voice to the people from my electorate of Indi who have implored me to speak in this place about bills such as this. More than that, though, I stand to give voice to the very people who are rendered voiceless by bills such as this, bills which seek to take away not just a phone but what last shred of connection they have to a world outside the darkness they find themselves in.
For too long in this country we've been sold the idea that, to be kind, we must be cruel and, to avoid people drowning at sea, we must detain those who do not. This bill is founded upon a false assumption that the current detention regime is respectable and worthy of refinement. The truth is it is not. Since I arrived in this place, I have called out the current detention arrangements for what they are—a cruel stopgap that we should have dismantled long ago and replaced with a system that is fair, orderly and humane. That we are still here debating how we should operate these punitive institutions is a problem in and of itself.
An extensive body of evidence has long demonstrated the great mental and physical harm caused to detainees of the current detention system. While immigration detention is ostensibly for administrative purposes, anyone who takes even a brief second glance knows that these centres have all the same characteristics and restrictions of regular prisons but without the same level of accountability. It's no secret that the purpose of this bill is to allow the minister to ban mobile phones in detention. Indeed, there are specific notes in this bill that make it very clear this bill is about removing mobile phones from detention. It's wholly unclear to me, and to many of those who've made submissions to the Senate inquiry into this bill, whether the minister will make that decision based on any evidence whatsoever. Indeed, this bill would not require any evidence. All it asks is that the decision-maker thinks, or is satisfied, there might be a risk to the health, safety or security of persons in the facility. I know I speak for many when I say I am uncomfortable giving such a discretionary power to a key architect of the current detention arrangements. Do we really believe the minister will be cautious and proportionate in making such a decision, putting the physical and psychological health and wellbeing of detainees first? I struggle to believe so.
There are deeply disturbing provisions in this bill. First, detention officers can search detainees for items the minister deems are prohibited, even if the detention officer does not have any reason to believe that the detainee is in possession of that item. I want to repeat that: even if the detention officer does not have any reason to believe that the detainee is in possession of that item. It is pure, unfettered discretion. Second, detention officers can conduct strip searches of detainees if they suspect, on reasonable grounds, that a detainee is in possession of that prohibited item. This is currently limited to strip searches for weapons or things that could help a detainee escape from detention. Under this bill, it could be any manner of objects. Third, officers can conduct searches of an entire detention facility, whether or not they have any reason to think there are prohibited things present in the facility. Officers can use dogs in that search. They can also designate anyone else to be an assistant to help conduct the searches. In fact, the minister can direct officers to exercise seizure powers under any circumstances he so desires—private security guards with dogs. It's beyond me how such powers could be considered fair, orderly and humane. To me, and the many constituents who write to me and call my office on a very regular basis, this is about increasing the securitisation of these centres, without due regard for the vulnerable populations who spend their lives inside them.
Mobile phones and other communication devices are essential to people held in immigration detention, for them to maintain regular contact, private contact, with loved ones and with lawyers and other forms of support. Mobile phones are essential—they are an essential link to the outside world. To remove them would compound the isolation, desperation and vulnerability felt by those under our care. Immigration detention centres are not prisons. Those seeking asylum should not be treated as prisoners. They deserve so much better than that from us.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's submission recounts a story that would be difficult for any parent to read, a story of a father whose only contact with his children from detention is via a mobile phone:
I cherish my skype time with my daughter. Each day, she asks me when I am coming home from my holiday and says that she wants me to come home and play with her. I ask her about her pictures, what TV she is watching, her favourite colours and toys. I always remind her to listen to her mother and that I will be home soon to be with her again. Our skype time always ends with 'see you soon' and 'I love you'.
He goes on:
I recently had the joy and at the same time, the torture, of watching my children open their Christmas presents, yet again from my phone in a detention centre, rather than being able to kiss and hug them and play with them.
Last Monday it was my daughter's first day of kindergarten. I feel so upset I was not able to walk her there or hear her news on the way home. But at least I got to see her on skype as soon as she came home, and got to hear all the details of her day …
This story is painful enough to read as it is. As a parent, as a midwife, as a public health researcher and as a human being, this is hard to read. But this is a story we must listen to. The contents of this story, if we did not know its origins, would be just so familiar, so domestic; but this case is just so tragic. And it is so absurd that, in a nation such as ours, this is a story we have to hear.
This bill is a blunt instrument that would make this man's life even more harrowing. It lacks the nuance and evidence to tackle a problem that this government has not got any data on. Right now, there are no minimum standards, statutory standards or a proper legal framework for standards in immigration detention. There's also no independent review or legal means for detainees to challenge their continuing detention or meaningful ways for them to complain about their treatment.
This bill fundamentally misunderstands who we are meant to be caring for. It's common for asylum seekers to be reticent to speak up to authority figures, following subjection to police persecution and corruption in the countries of origin from which they've fled. These centres should be a place where asylum seekers should feel as though they can trust detention officers and work with them, not fear them. They could be places where people learn, for the first time, that Australia is proud of its institutions that support and empower its citizens, not dehumanise them.
This bill forgets that we have an alternative to detention. Community arrangements for asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons have been in use by countries around the world for many years and to great effect. Sweden, for example, has used a reception program under which asylum seekers are issued with identification documents on arrival, which are used by immigration officials to track their cases. After spending around a week in a transit or processing centre, asylum seekers are released into the community and can use their documentation to access some basic services. In Spain, asylum seekers have been released into the broader community or accommodated in an open reception centre from which they are free to come and go. They are given a small monthly allowance and permitted to access medical and psychological services, a social worker, legal aid and educational opportunities. Here in Australia, we have been offered the opportunity of resettlement for eligible asylum seekers in New Zealand, and yet we have not taken that option.
This bill misses humane opportunities such as these. The concessions being negotiated to this bill ignore opportunities such as these. This bill is motivated by fear. I will not be supporting this bill—I will not support any bill like this—and I urge my colleagues to follow suit.
I just rise to sum up the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 before it is put to the vote in this House. Firstly, I thank all the members for their contributions. To this bill: this is a really important one. I'm very passionate about the need for this, because it goes straight to the heart of protecting our staff in the detention network and innocent adults and children out in the community. I want to explain exactly how it does that, but, before doing so, I want to just briefly touch on two or three points which have come up repeatedly in the debate from those opposite and some of the crossbench.
The first point I want to make is about the make-up of those who are in the detention network today. I think it is poorly understood by those opposite that the 1,558 people who are presently in our immigration detention network do not entirely comprise asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, more than 70 per cent of the 1,558 are in the detention centres today because they are being evicted from the country under section 501, and that only occurs when people have very serious criminal records. They're foreigners. They've committed very serious crimes, putting them in prison here in Australia for a year or more, and hence we take the decision to cancel their visa and send them abroad. We make no apology for doing that. That's the bulk of those who are in the immigration detention network at the moment—more than 70 per cent. You then have a couple of hundred people who are in the immigration detention network today because they've come out here under Labor's medevac legislation. They've all been assessed: 25 per cent of them are not refugees, and the others have been assessed as being refugees. Under the legislation and under the consent documents which they all provided, they were due to come out to Australia, get their medical treatment and then return. So really you're only talking about a couple of hundred people who the member for Indi is particularly concerned about. Frankly, this legislation's primary activity has less concern about that group than about the 70 per cent who are there for very serious criminal reasons. That's the first point I want to make.
The second point I make is that a point made repeatedly by the opposition is that we already have the powers to deal with some of the criminal activity which this bill is seeking to address, but the answer to that is: no, we do not. Under the legislation presently, an Australian Border Force officer looking after an immigration detention facility has the power to search for and to seize three items only: a weapon, an escape item or escape assistant, and a migration document—those three things only. They—and this has occurred—can see a person with what looks like drugs in their possession, and the Australian Border Force officers have no power to remove those drugs from the individual in the detention network. This is not a hypothetical; this has occurred in our detention facilities. You can have an individual who has violent extremist material on their iPad, in full view of the Australian Border Force officers looking after these detention networks, and they have no power to remove that iPad from that individual. Again, this is no hypothetical; this has occurred. You can have an individual—a disgusting, disgraceful individual—with child exploitation materials on his mobile phone sending it out to others abroad, in full view of the Australian Border Force officers looking after those detention facilities, and those Australian Border Force officers have no ability to remove that mobile phone from that individual—disgraceful man!
Again, that is no hypothetical situation. In fact, last month alone we had two examples of individuals—one man in Melbourne and another man in Brisbane—who were using their mobile phones to distribute, allegedly in one instance, child exploitation materials to others. This is one of the most disgraceful, despicable things that you can possibly imagine. Yes, the police were called, and they took 24 hours to get to that detention facility in that instance. How much child exploitation material was distributed in the course of that 24 hours? How much evidence did that individual man destroy within that 24 hours?
When individuals have drugs in their possession and they are seen, and they think perhaps the police will be arriving soon, what do you think they'll do with those drugs? Do they distribute them among some of the other individuals in the detention network? Do they get rid of the drugs? They consume the drugs, and that puts at risk the health and safety of some of the other people who are in the detention network.
This is what is at stake. The members opposite pretend that they are in favour of the health and safety of those in the detention network.
The members opposite assert that they are acting in the interests of the safety and welfare of those in the detention network. But if people are consuming drugs in those detention networks and becoming violent in the process, it is innocent people who get affected, including the staff. We've had other examples where detainees use their mobile phones to harass victims in respect of whom they have already been convicted of a crime. They are harassing their victims outside of the detention network using their mobile phone—and Australian Border Force officers have no power to remove that phone.
This is a very important bill and it goes straight to the heart of protecting the staff and protecting the security of these facilities. Seventy per cent of the occupants of these facilities are being evicted from the country because of serious criminal records. It goes straight to the heart of protecting members of the Australian community, including children. So, yes, this is an important bill. Frankly, I'm disgusted that the Labor Party is standing on the side of some of the foreign criminals who are using their phones to distribute child exploitation material and not standing on the side of innocent children out in the community who are affected by it. I'm passionate about this, as you can see. As the acting minister, I'm not going to stand in this place and not do everything I can to protect children in the Australian community.
This is not a widespread power.
Mr Giles interjecting—
The member opposite is making appalling interjections. This is not a widespread power. This does not remove the mobile phones from every individual in the detention network—far from it. It gives the power to the Australian Border Force officers or those others managing the detention facilities to search for drugs if they believe the drugs are there, to search for other things which may put people's health and safety at risk, and, yes, to use their discretion when there is a reasonable case to be made to remove an individual's mobile phone, then and there, when they see something damaging occurring—not waiting 24 hours for the police to arrive, but being able to take that action now. Not waiting for the police to arrive, during which time the drugs may be able to be consumed or hidden or flushed down the toilet.
Will these individuals—even such vile individuals who use their mobile phones to distribute child exploitation materials—be without phones from now on? No, they won't, and the members opposite know this. They won't be without communication devices. There are landlines available in every single one of the detention facilities. There are computers available in every single one of the detention facilities. They will remain available. But I tell you what, if you've got a man who is distributing child exploitation materials in a detention centre, then he should have his phone removed and he should have it removed immediately, as soon as that is spotted. That's what this bill would facilitate. So, yes, I am disgusted with those opposite who will stand for those crooks—those disgraceful, disgusting individuals—rather than stand for the protection of children and innocent people.
I know that the Labor Party will be voting against this bill, but I do implore the crossbench and the Senate to seriously consider what this bill is about. It is measured. It provides the discretion that the Australian Border Force officers need. It provides exactly the same discretion the Australian Border Force officers already have at our borders. Given that 70 per cent of the Australian immigration detention networks currently comprise of individuals who are being evicted from the country because of serious criminal records, yes, absolutely, we need these powers. So I commend this bill.
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 is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.