Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2006


Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs

6:49 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

These two documents are: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs—Response to Ombudsman’s statements made under section 486O of the Migration Act 1958—Statement to Parliament—Section 486P of the Migration Act 1958. (28 August 2006/28 August 2006); and Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs—Reports by the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman—Section 486O of the Migration Act 1958 [Personal identifier: 070/06—071/06]—Subsection 486O(5) of the Migration Act 1958. (28 August 2006/28 August 2006).

The latter document is a report by the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman, one of a series that has been tabled in the Senate detailing the investigations into the circumstances of people who have been in immigration detention in Australia for prolonged periods; and the former document is the minister’s response to the statement by the Immigration Ombudsman concerning two cases.

As is mentioned there, these two reports bring the total number of statements by the Immigration Ombudsman tabled in parliament to 71—so, there are 71 different people who have been in immigration detention for, I think, either one or two years. The ombudsman is investigating every case of every person who has been in immigration detention for those prolonged periods of time, looking at the background to the detention, the detention history, any issues relating to health and welfare, and removal issues or other detention issues, as well as a recommendation about what should best be done to resolve the situation. This flows from the justifiable outrage that came forward, in particular when the case of Cornelia Rau was discovered, and also with the case of Vivian Alvarez Solon. The federal government agreed to allow the ombudsman to investigate each of these cases, and to require a report to be tabled.

It is a valuable checking mechanism and it is a valuable transparency mechanism, and the government should be congratulated for initiating it. It should however still be noted that it is completely unacceptable, certainly from the Democrats’ point of view, that a person is in immigration detention for years at a time unless there are absolutely extreme extenuating circumstances. Many of the cases that have been tabled, including the two that have been tabled today, have been difficult cases. There is no doubt that the immigration area does throw up difficult cases from time to time. But we have to remember that detention is in effect jail. It is the denial of people’s freedom for an indeterminate period of time—people who have not been convicted of any crime and in most cases have not been accused of committing any crime, at least with regard to the Migration Act. To be basically locking them up as a holding pattern until we figure out how to resolve their circumstance is, in the Democrats’ view, still completely unacceptable.

The fact that we have transparency mechanisms such as these is welcome, but they should not be used as a reason for stepping back from the necessary reform of abolishing mandatory detention as an automatic component of our Migration Act. Despite all of the changes and welcome improvements that have been made in the last year or so, it is still a part of our Migration Act for there to be mandatory detention—mandatory indefinite detention—and that I believe is still unacceptable. We need to continue to push to reform the Migration Act to eliminate that totally unacceptable component of the act which I believe totally goes against the basic principles of our democracy and our system of law.

I have introduced private members bills in the Senate to achieve precisely that. I also note that I have introduced a separate bill to try to provide a more coherent and reliable mechanism for assessing peoples’ circumstances when there are other humanitarian issues separate to refugee convention issues. Many of these difficult cases that have been the subject of ombudsman reports are in that category where they do not meet the refugee convention criteria but there are other significant humanitarian circumstances. At the moment the system is arbitrary, very inconsistent and very opaque in how those cases are dealt with. These reports simply reinforce the need for broader legislative change. You cannot change the culture without actually changing the laws that inform that culture. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.