Monday, 23 November 2015
Migration and Maritime Powers Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2015; Second Reading
I rise today to speak to this bill, the Migration Maritime Powers Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2015. This bill, of course, has been through the regular Senate inquiry process. I think it is important to note at this stage that out of the seven submissions received by the committee inquiring into this bill all but one of those submissions were disfavourable towards this piece of legislation. The only submission saying that this bill should pass was—surprise, surprise—the submission from the government itself and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. We are becoming quite used to the department ticking off on their own pieces of draconian legislation.
There is a number of aspects to this bill that the Australia Greens are concerned with. Firstly, the provisions that deal with giving the minister more powers to automatically cancel visas on character grounds. I find it somewhat extraordinary that we are here today debating a piece of legislation that will give Minister Dutton more say to cancel peoples' visas—because it has worked out so well so far. We have our detention facilities, particularly the centre on Christmas Island, almost full to the brim with people who have automatically had their visas cancelled. We know the problems that that has caused only in the last couple of weeks.
Of course, even the New Zealand Prime Minister himself, John Key, was forced to raise this automatic cancellation issue with the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, on his first visit to New Zealand only last month. Here we have a piece of legislation that is going to give the minister more powers to deny people appeal rights in relation to the cancellation of their visas. The extraordinary aspect of this is that it will give the minister additional power to set aside decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I do not see many people spruiking that Minister Dutton of all people should be given the power to determine anything, let alone in a situation where it has become already so delicate in terms of our diplomatic relations—particularly with our cousins over the ditch.
Furthermore, this piece of legislation also has some concerning elements in relation to the impact on children or mentally ill people, who may not be aware that they could not make repeat applications for protection visas and therefore impacting on them significantly. We raised concerns about this provision last year and we are raising it again today. It is incredibly unfair and short-sighted to see that a child, or a mentally ill person, is going to be significantly disadvantaged because of these new provisions.
The other concerning element, which is somewhat different but nonetheless still important, is schedule 4 of the bill, which includes provisions in relation to the breach of international law and undermines Australia's relationships with other states in relation to purporting the authorisation of the turn back of boats in other countries' waters. We already know that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had an uncomfortable conversation with one aspect of this bill when he visited New Zealand. We also know that only a week or two ago he had another uncomfortable conversation with the government in Indonesia, specifically in relation to turning back boats. But it seems that while our Prime Minister is globe trotting there is one set of concerns, but back in the nation's parliament we have been asked to tick and flick legislation which undermines those relationships and the very real concerns of our regional neighbours.
I want to spend some time talking about the amendments which I have circulated in this place in relation to this legislation because I think they are extremely important. We know from time to time, when pieces of migration legislation come up in this place, the government do everything they can to push them through as quickly as possible with very little debate of the impact on the people involved. We saw at this exact time last year a piece of legislation which forced people who were found to be in legitimate need of protection, were found to be refugees, forced onto temporary protection visas. Part of that legislation included deals with a number of the crossbench members in this place in order to have that legislation passed. Part of that deal, may I remind the chamber, was in exchange for releasing children from detention. It seems somewhat saddening to be standing here 12 months later having to move an amendment to this piece of legislation to ensure children are released from immigration detention.
My first amendment will be to ensure that all children here in Australia will be released from detention by Christmas. A number of members of the community have asked me, 'Wasn't that what was supposed to happen 12 months ago?' Yes, indeed it was, but it did not occur. We still have over 100 children locked up in immigration detention here on Australian soil and it is a national shame that we have a government which has sat by and allow those children to deteriorate mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and developmentally over the last 12 months by keeping them locked up as prisoners. We are talking about children as young as just a couple of months old, right through to children of primary-school and high-school ages. No child deserves to be incarcerated through no fault of their own but simply as a consequence of where they were born and the terrors and the torments which they and their parents have had to flee, seeking protection and safety in a country like Australia. All these children have been given in return thus far is to be forgotten, to be locked up and, effectively, for the key to be thrown away. We have an opportunity today to pass an amendment to this bill that would ensure the release of children from detention and would ensure that they can be housed safely in the community, where they can be looked after with their families and where their asylum claims can be assessed fairly and efficiently.
My second amendment to this legislation is one I have spoken of before in this place but I think it is absolutely fundamental. It is about ensuring that there is mandatory reporting of child abuse when it happens inside detention facilities. It is unthinkable, unfathomable, that we have a situation where doctors and nurses can be jailed for two years for reporting crimes in detention; meanwhile, there is no legal requirement for people who work in these facilities to report abuse, harm or violence. We know we need this provision because we have seen the reports over and over again. The Human Rights Commission report reported dozens of cases of child abuse and harm towards children. We saw the Moss review into the detention facility and the detention camp on Nauru reaffirm that children are being harmed inside these facilities. Even the Senate's own recent inquiry into conditions in Nauru showed again that children are being harmed and are suffering abuse inside the detention facilities. It should be, at a basic bare minimum, mandatory for staff or for anyone who witnesses abuse and harm to have to report it independently. We expect those conditions for teachers in our schools, we expect those conditions for doctors working in our hospitals, we expect those conditions for other Commonwealth officers in public institutions, but currently, as it stands under the law, it is not a requirement to report criminal activity and the harm of children but, in fact, it is a crime to report criminal activity to independent authorities. We can get done with that today by ensuring that the amendment that would establish mandatory reporting of abuse be passed by this place.
The third amendment I will be moving today is in relation to media access to detention facilities. We know that the detention camps offshore and the centres in Australia and on Christmas Island are media black holes. Journalists are not allowed in, staff are not allowed to speak out and then we wonder why abuse and harm fester. It is time we threw open the doors and shone the light on what is actually going on inside these facilities. If the government have nothing to hide, they will not have a problem with allowing media to access the facilities to see for themselves what is really going on.
The Australian people spent billions of dollars on this government's detention regime. They have every right to know how their money is being spent and what the conditions are inside these horrible, horrible camps. I have been there and I have seen them, and they are awful. They are places of horror, particularly for the young children who are locked up. But you should not just have to take my word for it—the public has a right to know, and journalists should be able to report fairly on what is going on inside these centres.
The fourth amendment I will be moving to this legislation goes to the issue of the public interest test for those who believe they need to speak out about what they see and about what is going on inside these detention centres. As we know, the Border Force Act, which came into force on 1 July this year, included a provision to threaten staff working in these facilities from speaking out—whether they be doctors, nurses, guards or teachers. Today I am moving an amendment that has been put to this place previously. It is important to reaffirm that there should be a public interest test so that staff who fundamentally believe that they need to speak out, that they need to blow the whistle on what is going on inside these camps, have the protection of the law to do so. Why is it that doctors and nurses feel so intimidated, so threatened, about being able to speak out and even to talk about their clients? It is out of fear that the government is going to prosecute them and hold them to the potential of a two-year jail sentence. It is just abhorrent that we are treating our professionals and our practitioners like this. This amendment will reverse the secrecy provisions under the Border Force Act and will allow for whistleblowers to have their case tested. If it is found to be in the public interest, then they will not have to feel the full brunt of the secrecy war this government continues to embark on.
The fifth amendment, importantly, relates directly to the issues in relation to the cancellation of visas on character grounds. Those who are actually criminals—who have broken the law, who have committed awful crimes and who are being detained in our detention facilities—should not be detained alongside people who have committed no crime at all, who are only seeking asylum in our country. The separation of criminals from people seeking asylum in our detention centres is absolutely vital. We know that the recent riots on Christmas Island were a result of this hideous situation where people who are seeking asylum—people who have fled war and persecution, even people who have been found to be genuine refugees—are being locked up alongside serious criminals. It does not need to be like that, it should not be like that and the government should be banned from locking up refugees alongside criminals. I was doing a little research on these amendments last night, and I found it interesting that even former Liberal leader John Hewson was reported in the last couple of weeks as saying that it is madness and absurd that we are locking up asylum seekers alongside criminals.
We know that the government does not want to talk about the riots on Christmas Island. They would prefer that nobody knew. They would prefer that the black hole and their war on secrecy are continued to Christmas Island as well. But we do know it happened, and we know that one of the main contributing factors was that the government has been keeping serious criminals locked up alongside asylum seekers, putting them at risk of harm. A simple amendment to ban the government from keeping those two groups of people together would go a long way towards ensuring safety, security and good order inside our detention centres.
The amendments have been circulated, so we will move into committee stage and I will deal with them one by one. I want to ensure that the government understands that the reason these amendments are important is that every time this government introduces a new amendment bill to make life harder and tougher and meaner in our detention facilities, it is coming on top of all of the things that are already in place and that are already missing. Let's get those children out by Christmas. Let's ensure that mandatory reporting of abuse happens. Let's not just talk about it, not just say that it is a good idea; let's make sure it happens. To do that we have to amend the legislation. If the government has nothing to hide about what they are doing, then they would let the media in and they would stop the threat to whistleblowers. These are simple amendments, and I hope that my Senate colleagues will look at them favourably.