Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009

In Committee

Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.

1:05 pm

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would seek leave to move amendments (1), (2), and (3) together but technically I cannot combine them. So I seek leave to move amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 5845 revised. I will not move amendment (3) if amendments (1) and (2) do not get through.

Leave granted.

I move Family First amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 5845 revised:

(1)    Schedule 1, Parts 1 to 3, page 4 (line 2) to page 9 (line 29), omit the Parts, substitute:

Migration Act 1958

1  After section 214


214A  Liability ceases for refugees

        (1)    If a person is assessed to be a refugee for the purposes of the Refugees Convention as amended by the Refugees Protocol, any immigration detention liability incurred under one or more of the provisions specified in subsection (2) ceases from the time the assessment is made.

        (2)    The provisions specified for the purposes of subsection (1) are:

             (a)    section 209, 211, 262 or 264, or subsection 151(3) or 213(3), of the Migration Act 1958;

             (b)    an undertaking or obligation prescribed by regulations made for the purposes of subsection 140H(1) of that Act;

             (c)    an arrangement referred to in paragraph 145(c), 146(1)(b), 147(c) or 148(c) of that Act;

             (d)    any other instrument.

2  Application

The amendment made by item 1 applies in respect of any liability of the kind referred to in subsection 214A(1) which exists at, or is incurred after, the commencement of this Schedule, whether the assessment referred to in that subsection is made before or after this Schedule commences.

(2)    Clause 2, page 2 (table item 2), omit “, Part 1”.

We have had a fair bit of debate on this issue. The distinction I am making is between refugees and those people who have actually stayed here illegally. Mr Evans went through some of those categories. But the key thing is that it is a principle. Refugees should have their debt wiped. I agree with the government on that issue. I do not have a problem with that and I have made quite clear in my speech the distinction for refugees. The issue is those people who are illegally in Australia and are caught and put into detention. It could be for a criminal activity. Even overstaying a visa is a criminal activity, I suppose. I do not think that that debt should be wiped. It is a principle. I understand the issues of cost and of chasing it. I think that it is a principle that we need to hold on. So I seek the support of others in the chamber for these amendments, which say that the liability ceases for refugees, but anyone who is not a refugee would therefore have that liability remain. The way it operates at the moment would continue for those people. I urge senators to consider it and support it.

1:07 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to make some comments in relation to Senator Fielding’s amendments. The coalition will not be supporting these amendments. I appreciate the sentiment of the amendments that are proposed, but at the moment the legislation—as the minister outlined—does have a framework for the waiving and writing off of detention debt. If there are issues in relation to the need to tighten up some aspects, they are separate issues. To dismantle this framework and to effectively throw out the baby with the bathwater is not a course of action that the coalition supports. Prior to becoming a senator I had 20 years experience as a lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor. Over my time, I did a lot of immigration cases. Many of the debts that are incurred are incurred as a consequence of protracted litigation. People who spend a lengthy time in detention end up with very high debts.

But, as the minister also said, this not really about the refugees and their debt; this is principally about overstayers. Let us not forget that there are approximately 48,500 overstayers in this country at any given time. Senator Fielding talked about principle. There is also this principle: if somebody knowingly overstays and abuses their visa conditions and does incur a detention debt, why shouldn’t that person be responsible for that detention debt and why shouldn’t that detention debt stay against them—particularly should they wish to come back into the country at some later stage? I appreciate the comments that the minister made in terms of the cost of administering this program, $350,000. When we are talking about the country having a debt of $315 billion, the cost of the framework is minimal, and it does act as a deterrent. Perhaps one of the problems here is that it is not made as clear as it ought to be to people that, if they do overstay their visa and they get put into detention, they will have to meet those detention costs.

As far as the category of people that the minister talked about—those who do not get refugee status but who then ultimately do stay legally—goes, the framework is in place for their debts to be waived and written off. From the coalition’s perspective, it is important to keep the framework in place and to undertake the process of looking at cases on their merits and waiving or writing off the debt subsequently. From our perspective, the principle is important. The framework needs to remain so that it does act as a deterrent, particularly—and I would like to stress this—in relation to overstayers and where the overstaying is compounded by protracted litigation. That is certainly the experience that I had over my many years of involvement as a government lawyer. I conclude by saying that we will not be supporting Senator Fielding’s amendments.

1:11 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Greens cannot support Senator Fielding’s amendments, either. This goes right to the heart of why we are asking for the Senate to pass this bill as drafted and put forward by the minister. We need to remove this policy in its entirety. We have heard time and time again over the course of this debate, not just in this chamber but also in the other place, that Australia is the only country in the world which charges people for their incarceration. If we were to accept the amendments as put forward by Senator Fielding, we would still remain the only country in the world that charges people for their incarceration. There is absolutely no way that we can support his amendment.

Having said that, I completely accept that asylum seekers—refugees, people who are given protection visas or humanitarian visas—are the most vulnerable people we are talking about. But we need to remove this policy in its entirety. It is not a proud thing for Australia to say, ‘We are the only country in the world that detains people and then charges them for their incarceration.’ We cannot say that and stand tall in the eyes of the world. We need to remove this policy in its entirety.

I would like to pick up on a point that the opposition raised. The argument from the opposition spokesperson on immigration seems to be flip-flopping on this issue. There is scaremongering over the ‘come on down’ mentality. They argue that removing this policy would be removing a deterrent. That is absolutely abhorrent and completely irrational. We need to remove this policy. I am glad that, as Senator Troeth pointed out, it is being removed by the Labor Party. They introduced it. I am glad that they have seen the error of their ways. Let us get on and get this passed to ensure that we can give some real meaning to stability, to resettlement and to freedom for these people who still have a huge debt hanging over their heads for no other reason than that they were incarcerated and detained against their will.

1:14 pm

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

As I indicated in the earlier debate, I have tried to address Senator Fielding’s concerns. The government will not be supporting his amendments. I appreciate the motivation, which I think is driven by a concern about treating refugees fairly and about having integrity in the immigration system. No-one is more focused on the integrity of the immigration system than I am. We have to ensure that people who are found not to be eligible to stay here are removed.

That is something that the previous government were not very good at. They were good at the rhetoric but they actually were not very good at removal. One of my big challenges is to try to make us better at it. One of the reasons we have had people in long-term detention in this country is that the previous government were not any good at getting rid of them. They would bang them up, but then they would stay there for a long time. Some of the people I have removed in recent times had been in detention for six, seven or eight years. It was ridiculous, but we were unable to successfully remove them. These were paedophiles and criminals who were not there for immigration offences but whom we wanted to deport. We are also working very hard to protect the integrity of the system when dealing with overstayers and others. I want to make a point about overstayers: we have one of the best records in the world. We have one of the lowest numbers of overstayer rates, and that is a good thing. That is despite the enormous growth in the number of tourist visitors we have to this country.

In response to Senator Fielding, the key point is that those people who are removed from this country because we have found they have not done the right thing retain a removal debt and retain a bar on their return. So Senator Fielding’s concerns about how we treat them are protected by the removal debt. I deliberately left it in there. It is not abolished. Those people have a removal debt and it acts as a bar to their return. These people have not done the right thing.

For people who have been granted refugee status, successive governments have not pursued the debts and nor should we. The group that is left and that is vulnerable is made up of the people who live here, whom we have given permanent visas, many of whom are now citizens and have kids who are Australian citizens. They have often had traumatic experiences. We have given them a visa and they are legally here but we continue to punish them by saying: ‘You owe us vast amounts of money for the pleasure of spending two or three years at Baxter or Woomera. We’re going to keep trying to get that money out of you at the expense of your getting on with your life, being able to buy a house and being able to care for your kids in the way that you’d like to, because you have this debt.’

That is not rational. These are people who will be here forever. They are Australian citizens or they are Australian permanent residents. Unfortunately, the effect of Senator Fielding’s amendments would be to continue punishing them. Fundamentally, this bill is about ending that punishment. I think we agree on all the other areas but, on that point, the effect of the amendments would be to continue that punishment, and that is why successive parliamentary committees have recommended that the government end that punishment. That is what we are seeking to end. I cannot support the amendments.

1:17 pm

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will not keep the chamber long. I can quite clearly see where the numbers are on these amendments. It is a genuine concern. We do have a fantastic country, and we need to make sure that it stays that way. It is a principle for me. There are people who do the wrong thing and who can maybe get around the immigration system. They come here, overstay and then marry an Australian, and all of a sudden you wipe off their debt. To me it opens up the issue of jumping the queue.

I have said my piece. That is the genuine concern that I have. I also have a genuine concern about refugees and that is why I make it quite clear that I support refugees having their debts absolutely wiped. I think that is the fair and decent thing to do. But, when it comes to the other categories, I think there is a real problem when people have not done the right thing. Maybe they marry someone here and all of a sudden their debt is wiped. That is a real concern, and it would be of concern to most Australians if they really knew about it. I can understand the complexities and that it may capture some others, but it is a real problem. I will leave if there because I know where the votes are.

Question negatived.

Photo of Michael ForshawMichael Forshaw (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fielding, I understand that you are not proceeding with your amendment (3). Would you confirm that, please?

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is correct.

Bill agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment; report adopted.