Monday, 29 July 2019
Ministers of State (Checks for Security Purposes) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I think most people would be quite surprised to learn that ministers of state do not require a security clearance, that ministers of state get access to the most sensitive of government information, including having access to cabinet information, yet there is no security check. So I'm pleased to have this opportunity to add to the observations I made in my second reading speech when I first introduced the Ministers of State (Checks for Security Purposes) Bill 2019.
On 4 July, the Senate referred the bill to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report, due by 11 November. That committee will, one hopes, conduct a thorough and long overdue examination of the important issue this bill seeks to address, which is security at the highest levels of government.
The exemption of ministers from any mandatory security-checking process is a dangerous anomaly and a significant gap in Australia's protective security framework. The bill establishes a framework for ministers to undergo a security-checking process by ASIO that is equivalent to and as rigorous as that imposed on all other persons with access to our nation's most sensitive and highly classified secrets. The purpose would be to provide security advice to the Prime Minister.
In the event that the security background check reveals an area of security concern, the Prime Minister would be free to determine what steps might be required to resolve the matter. The PM is, and would remain, the absolute decision-maker with regard to who is recommended to the Governor-General to serve in a ministerial office and have access to our nation's innermost decision-making and most sensitive secrets. What this bill will do is ensure that the PM is fully advised of any security issues that may arise from a comprehensive background check—something that is not mandatory now. To be very clear, this security check could not be used for any other purpose other than to inform the Prime Minister, and only the Prime Minister, of the day—and it's so framed in the bill. If the Prime Minister changes, the new Prime Minister cannot have access to previous assessments, only to assessments on ministers who are members of their cabinet.
The necessity for improving security across the board was again highlighted last week by the outgoing Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, who, in an interview with The Australian newspaper, warned in blunt terms that Australia faces an 'unprecedented' wave of espionage and foreign interference. Mr Lewis warned that 'the espionage threat showed no sign of abating/, while 'unwelcome influence within Australia’s political system is now widespread'. He said:
It is an unprecedented level of activity … it’s not visible to most people.
The government and the parliament have already responded to these national security challenges, notably with the introduction of new laws to deal with foreign espionage and covert political interference and with the establishment of a foreign influence transparency scheme, which is administered by the Attorney-General. This bill supports the objective of the recent legislation by providing the Australian public with greater assurance that security will be maintained at the highest levels of the Australian government.
Regrettably, it cannot be assumed that persons appointed to high political office will always be free of characteristics, activities, associations, connections or obligations that may compromise or risk the compromise of national security within the executive government. Human frailty being what it is, elected parliamentarians and ministers are not immune to weaknesses and temptations that in rare but significant cases may lead to involvement in espionage and, indeed, treason. At the end of the Cold War, the publication of secret Soviet intelligence files showed that the KGB had enjoyed success in recruiting as agents not just Western government officials but also parliamentarians and ministers in a number of Western countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, at least two former British Labour MPs were identified as agents recruited by the KGB. Two other Labour MPs, including one minister in the Harold Wilson government, have also been confirmed as having been paid agents of the communist Czechoslovakian intelligence service, the StB. Here in Australia, the publication of KGB archives, as well as the release of ASIO files by the National Archives, revealed that a former federal member for Hunter, the late Bert James, was a covert source for the Soviet embassy. Another Labor MP, the late senator John Wheeldon, was involved in a sex espionage scandal involving the chief KGB officer in Canberra and a French embassy official. Wheeldon was later a minister in the Whitlam government.
The Cold War is long over, but, if anything, the counterespionage and challenges that Australia now faces a much greater than ever before. China, the rising regional power, already enjoys considerable access to and influence within the Australian political system, from local governments to state parliaments and here, the national parliament. Security issues involving elected MPs and ministers have always been politically sensitive, and there has long been a reluctance to require ministers who are elected representatives to undergo any security checking processes. I might point out that there are some suggested constitutional concerns because of the separation of powers, but we must remember that members of parliament and senators, who are in a separate pillar in respect of our government, are occasionally ministers, and it is when they are ministers that they fill a role in the executive, so there is no constitutional impediment to this bill proceeding. We don't have security clearances. In the current security environment, this can no longer be acceptable.
Recent experience concerning the noncompliance of MPs and senators with constitutional requirements for election to parliament shows that the party preselection processes and electoral and media scrutiny, as well as selection to serve on the ministry cannot be relied on to identify matters that would be an issue in a security background checking process. Instances of corruption or other embarrassing incidents involving Australian political figures show that ministers may succumb to temptations that may make them vulnerable to compromise. Over the past decades, specific security issues have arisen in relation to ministers and shadow ministers. One case which I have previously discussed in the Senate, in an adjournment speech, is the relationship between member for Hunter and former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Chinese Australian property developer Helen Liu, a person who is directly linked to senior Chinese military intelligence operatives. Senators would also be familiar with matters that lead to the resignation of former senator Sam Dastyari. He was a very buoyant chap, and I'm sure he would have gone on to become a Labor minister. I make no judgement about the member for Hunter, or, indeed, former Senator Dastyari. Suffice to say, these matters are precisely the sorts of issues that would be appropriately addressed by a security checking regime.
As I pointed out in my second reading speech, Canada has taken up the practice of security checking its federal ministers. That process has been adopted by successive Canadian governments and also extends to security checking MPs who serve on Canada's National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, the equivalent of our Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Once again, we now see in legislation, slowly creeping in as we introduce more powers, the ability of the PJCIS to examine some elements of what it is that our security services do. Yet, none of the members who are on that committee are required to have a security check of any sort. So, an additional issue which the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee might wish to consider is the question of security checks for members of the PJCIS.
This bill is designed to be fully consistent with the Prime Minister's responsibilities in selecting and leading the cabinet and ministry. It would be naive to think that Australian ministers of state will always be immune from failings that may make them vulnerable to compromise or tempt them into behaviour that may harm national security. They should be subject to security checking equivalent to what is done by or that applies to many thousands of public servants and Defence Force personnel who have access to highly classified information.
I'm not suggesting, and the bill does not suggest, that the security services have any vetting role over a minister—to be very, very clear about that. The bill requires that a report be compiled for the Prime Minister and only for the Prime Minister, and what the Prime Minister does to deal with any concerns that may be raised in the report it is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. When he has finished with that report, it returns to the Director-General of Security, where it will be locked away, and the bill explicitly states that report can be used for no other purpose.
I might just reflect on last week when we were discussing the TEO bill, the temporary exclusion order bill. A process has been enacted in law now—unfortunately, in my view, on account of the lack of protections for flawed evidence. In that particular bill, the home affairs minister makes a determination based upon advice from ASIO—presumably classified advice. He or she then passes their decision to a review authority, who is security cleared, to conduct a quick review. But the bill allows for the minister not to pass on the ASIO assessment if it's not in the public interest to do so. The irony—the dichotomy—of that particular arrangement is that the review authority is required to be security cleared, but the minister who makes the decision, who sees the most sensitive information, is not required to be cleared. That creates an anomaly. I'm not suggesting anything in relation to our current home affairs minister; I'm just using that as an example that most people would say is odd.
At the very start I suggested that most Australians would be unaware and would think it very odd that our ministers who access briefings from all of our intelligence services, see sensitive information from foreign governments, get access to sensitive information from companies, and generate their own sensitive information are not security cleared. This bill will plug a major gap in Australia's protective security framework, and I commend it to the Senate.
I rise also to speak on the Ministers of State (Checks for Security Purposes) Bill 2019. As the Chair of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, I look forward to our forthcoming inquiries into this bill and no doubt considering the evidence and submissions we receive. Although Senator Patrick's well-known interest and concern for national security is laudable, the government does not support this bill. I will briefly outline why this morning.
The government already has extensive vetting processes in place for ministerial staff and public servants which Senator Patrick proposes be effectively extended to also include ministers. Senator Patrick's bill would require the Prime Minister, within 14 days of the appointment of a minister, to direct the Director-General of ASIO to investigate and provide a report on matters relating to security, including the personal background and circumstances of a minister. The director-general must then provide the report to the Prime Minister within 120 days, and it must be returned to ASIO upon the Prime Minister ceasing to hold that office.
The existing process for ministerial staff and public servants is comprehensive and appropriate. Depending on the level of clearance required, it can involve identity and citizenship verification, a police check, statutory declarations, referee checks, a digital footprint check, a financial history check, an ASIO assessment, a security interview and a psychological assessment. However, there are very good reasons why ministers and their staff and public servants should be treated differently when it comes to security vetting. In the Westminster system, the only qualifications for ministerial office are, first, election by the people as a member of parliament and, second, an invitation from the Prime Minister to join their ministry. Along with every other member of parliament, ministers are required to publicly declare any relevant interest that they may have which could influence them in the exercise of their duties. Ministers are also accountable to the parliament and have to front up on a regular basis to question time, estimates and other forums to be questioned on their conduct and performance in their role. Introducing a third qualification, whereby ministers would be required, in effect, to pass a bureaucratic process in order to hold office, undermines the Westminster system.
It is entirely appropriate for ministerial staff and public servants to undergo security vetting because they are entering into an employment relationship. But ministers are not employees; they are public officials. With that status comes the public scrutiny and accountability that cannot and should not be equally applied to staff or public servants. Public servants and ministerial staff do not stand for election and, therefore, do not expose themselves to the public and media scrutiny that comes with that. The burden for ensuring that ministers are qualified and appropriate for their role rightly falls squarely with the Prime Minister. Any Prime Minister knows that their appointments will be scrutinised through the democratic parliamentary and political processes that we have in place.
Of course, party leaders must exercise good judgement in choosing their frontbench teams, and I acknowledge, as Senator Patrick has pointed out, that has not always been the case. Senator Patrick raises the case of Senator Dastyari, and I was also planning to raise it in my remarks because I think it is a salutary lesson, although for different reasons than Senator Patrick does. I think it is, in the last parliament at least, the most infamous example of an inclusion of an inappropriate person in, in this case, an opposition shadow ministry. Yet, even in this instance, the best protection that our political system has against an unsuitable appointment remains public scrutiny. After adverse media coverage and parliamentary scrutiny, Senator Dastyari first stepped down from the Labor front bench in September 2016, then again stepped down from the Labor front bench in November 2017 following further revelations, and ultimately resigned from the Senate entirely in December 2017. This is a good example of how the public and parliamentary scrutiny processes that we already have in place are the best and most effective mechanism for ensuring that an unsuitable person is not appointed, in this instance, to a shadow ministry; it would equally apply had the Labor Party been successful at the last election and won government and had Senator Dastyari aspired to serve in the ministry in government.
A confidential security vetting process as proposed by Senator Patrick is no substitute for this robust process of public and parliamentary scrutiny and the Westminster principles of ministerial accountability. It is for these reasons that the government will not be supporting the bill.
I rise to speak on the Ministers of State (Checks for Security Purposes) Bill 2019 on behalf of the opposition. I notice Senator Patrick's rather cowardly attack on the member for Hunter once again in this place. Can I suggest, Senator, that, if you are going to make these allegations, at least do them outside of parliament where people can at least have the opportunity to defend themselves from these allegations.
Senator Patrick interjecting—
I know, Senator Patrick, that you're trying to push yourself up on the Centre Alliance ticket in South Australia for the next election. I've seen the poor performance of your party at the last election, so I understand why you're doing it, Senator Patrick, but, again, can I offer you a little bit of advice? Try to focus on issues that affect South Australians, like the River Murray and like defence contracts. Stick to something that might try to improve the status of people in South Australia.
This bill seeks to impose security checks and processes on members of the executive and to allow the Prime Minister to receive this information confidentially in the form of reports from the Director-General of Security. As highlighted in the bill's explanatory memorandum, ministers occupy a position of both authority and trust in our democratic framework. Cabinet ministers are privy to the highest levels of sensitive material, including involving matters of national security and classified information. In the view of the opposition, the bill proposed by Senator Patrick does not achieve any of the substantial improvements to the ministerial or cabinet processes.
The bill highlights the contrast between public servants and ministerial staff acquiring security clearances and procedures while elected members and appointed ministers are exempt from this process. This ignores the obvious conventions in our democratic system that all elected members are placed under significant public scrutiny while seeking public office and in any subsequent election or re-election.
Senator Patrick interjecting—
I sat quietly and listened to Senator Patrick, Deputy President; could you please ask him to provide the same courtesy?
Thank you, Deputy President. Our system deliberately differs from, for example, the United States, where members of the executive branch are not drawn from the legislature and, therefore, are spared the scrutiny of the electoral process. As the bill references, Australia's constitutional framework ensures a minister shall not hold office for more than three months unless he or she becomes a senator or member of the House of Representatives and, therefore, subject to the scrutiny of the electoral process. Additionally, there exists a clear conflict with the role and the supremacy of the elected legislature and the appointed executive by the government of the day.
Although the bill does not seek to impose any real or practical obligation on members on the executive as a result of the checks for security purposes, there still exists a conflict on what basis an independent ministerial appointment should be made by the Prime Minister of the day. For these reasons, the opposition will not be supporting the bill proposed by Senator Patrick. Labor remains committed to further consideration of our security processes and democratic integrity measures. However, these changes must be considered carefully and take into consideration the democratic principles on which our system of government is founded.
I rise to add some comments to Senator Patrick's bill, to reiterate some of the very wise remarks that Senator Paterson made in his contribution and to put the government's position clearly with regard to this.
I think we'd all agree that Senator Patrick's interest in national security matters is laudable. In the previous parliament, he and I sat together on the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, which, interestingly, in the course of the last parliament, conducted a number of inquiries into the Auditor-General's work around security matters and the security framework that operates in our country. While I don't doubt or dismiss Senator Patrick's forensic approach to issues like this, I think on this matter he's wrong and the bill doesn't deserve to be supported.
I think it is worth reiterating some of the comments Senator Paterson made in his contribution. The first of those, of course, was that the government already does have extensive vetting processes in place for ministerial staff and for public servants which Senator Patrick proposes to, effectively, be extended to include ministers. Senator Patrick's bill would require the Prime Minister, within 14 days of the appointment of a minister, to direct the director-general of ASIO to investigate and provide a report on 'matters relating to security'—which is a direct quote from his proposed legislation—including the personal background and circumstances of ministers. The director-general must then provide the report to the Prime Minister within 120 days, which must be returned to ASIO upon the Prime Minister ceasing to hold that office. The existing process for ministerial staff and public servants is comprehensive and appropriate, we on the government side would argue. Depending on the level of clearance required, it can involve identity and citizenship verification, a police check, statutory declarations, referee checks, a digital footprint check, financial history check, an ASIO assessment, a security interview and a psychological assessment, so there is a very extensive list of tests that need to be applied.
However, there are very good reasons why ministers and their staff and public servants should be treated differently when it comes to security vetting. In the Westminster system, the only qualification for ministerial office is, first, election by the people to be a member of parliament and, second, an invitation by the Prime Minister to join the ministry. Along with every other member of parliament, ministers are required to publicly declare any relevant interests they may have which could influence them in the exercise of their duties. Ministers are accountable to this parliament and have to front up on a regular basis in question time, estimates and other forums to be questioned on their conduct and performance in the role. So there is already in our country a high level of transparency and with that transparency, I would argue, comes a high level of public and private accountability. Introducing a third qualification whereby ministers would be required, in effect, to pass a bureaucratic process in order to hold office undermines the Westminster system of government, and I think that was a point that Senator Farrell was trying to make in his contribution.
It is entirely appropriate, we argue, for ministerial staff and public servants to undergo security vetting because they are entering into an employment relationship. But ministers are not employees; they are public officials. With that status comes public scrutiny and accountability that cannot be equally applied to staff. I am someone, like Senator Paterson, who would argue that that public scrutiny and accountability is at a higher level and is more intense than is applied to staff. Public servants and ministerial staff do not stand for election and expose themselves to public and media scrutiny. And I think it's fair to say that, in our country, that public and media scrutiny is robust, is intense and serves the public interest well.
The burden for ensuring that ministers are qualified and appropriate for their role rightly falls to the Prime Minister. Any prime minister knows their appointments will be scrutinised through the democratic parliamentary and political processes we have in place. Of course, party leaders also must exercise good judgement in choosing their front-bench teams, and that has not always been the case. And, while I don't want to reflect too much on some of the high personalities and high stakes, this chamber has seen some people become very real and very public casualties as a result of what were private matters that were subsequently properly exposed through the media in appropriate public scrutiny. Of course, Senator Dastyari's name is one that comes to mind most immediately when we think about that set of circumstances. Yet, even in that instance, the best protection our political system has against unsuitable appointments remains public scrutiny.
To your credit, Senator Patrick, I don't mind saying that you are, have been and will continue to be a very strong advocate for increased levels of public scrutiny and increased levels of transparency. But, like I said, on this particular point I think that your concern is unwarranted and that this legislative proposal is unnecessary. A confidential security vetting process as proposed by Senator Patrick is no substitution for a robust process of public and parliamentary scrutiny and the Westminster principles of ministerial accountability.
I think this is a very critical point: some people have the false belief that, by putting something into law or regulation, you somehow improve the transparency processes in our country. I caution that. Often I hear people say, 'Oh, because it's in the law or because it's in regulation, we don't have to have the same level of intensity around our other scrutiny processes,' like the media process, like the public process or, indeed, like parliamentary scrutiny and adhering to the principles of the Westminster system of government. So I think sometimes we can find false comfort, false sanctuary in more regulations and more legislation because people then take their eye off the existing mechanisms for high levels of public scrutiny, like our Senate processes and our parliamentary processes more generally. For these reasons the government's not inclined to support this particular piece of legislation.
Although it is worth reminding the Senate that Senator Patrick's bill is before a committee. That committee process is ongoing, and, through that process, the onus will be on Senator Patrick and those people in the community who support his proposition to bring forward information that might allow people in this Senate to review their position. If the evidence is more conclusive than it currently is—I doubt that will be the outcome of the committee process but it's not my place to predict what the final outcome will be—let's see that and let's put that evidence through the proper lens of public scrutiny as well.
With regard to that, I'll leave my comments there. The bill will, no doubt, come back to the Senate after the committee has concluded its deliberations and then we'll see what the committee process has revealed.
I see that both the government and the alternative government don't, under any circumstances, want ministers to be subject to any particular security checking. However, I thank the contributors to this debate on the Ministers of State (Checks for Security Purposes) Bill 2019 because it does enliven me to questions and nooks and crannies that will need to be explored in the context of the committee. I do want to address a couple of the points that were raised in the chamber, and I thank people for making their contribution and raising these issues.
Firstly, I do appreciate that the Westminster system is a good system of government. However, to suggest that security checking ministers breaks that down is to just ignore what is happening in Canada. Canada does check its ministers from a security perspective and, indeed, operates under the Westminster system. So I think we can put any concerns in that regard to one side.
The point made by all contributors that ministers are subject to public scrutiny, media scrutiny and parliamentary scrutiny ignores the fact that, when people are being influenced by foreign officials or conducting activities that are not proper, they tend to do that covertly. They don't come into the chamber, they don't do that in sight of the media and they don't do that in the face of public scrutiny. They actually try to do that in secret. Senators would be aware that's especially problematic as our police forces and our intelligence forces are very aware of their responsibilities and the difficulties in watching what a minister may or may not be doing because it causes a considerable difficulty in respect of parliamentary privilege. We have a situation where these activities will not be done in the daylight. To the extent that they are done in secret, for good reasons, we already tie our security forces hands behind their backs. I reject some of the propositions that have been made but appreciate the early notice of the issues that will no doubt be raised in the committee. Thank you.
I ask the question: do you think the current rate of immigration to Australia is too high? Our rate of net immigration is a topic that has regularly made an appearance at the forefront of public debate in recent years and so it should. Immigration impacts considerably on Australia's overall population growth, which in turn impacts on the lifestyles we are all able to experience. It makes common sense to understand that more people means more demand for services. If those services are not established at a pace that keeps up with the growth then lifestyles will go backwards. With the stagnant lifestyles ordinary Australians have been experiencing in the past decade we certainly don't want things to get any worse.
Raising an issue like immigration, in particular the idea of an immigration slow down, also seems to attract those who want to drag the racism tag into the discussions. It's already happened with this bill and I really expect nothing less from those who have already tossed this issue into the too-hard basket and don't have the fortitude to tackle the difficult matters that affect the lives of all citizens and residents of Australia.
As I have said previously, this bill is not about where people originate when they come to live in our great nation or why. It is strictly about the numbers and the impact those numbers—significant numbers on a global scale, mind you—are having on our lives here.
Australia's considerable population growth has been linked quite publicly in recent years to various social issues: infrastructure being unable to keep up with the population growth in our suburbs and services being unable to keep up with the increased demand that results from the collective needs of more people.
Infrastructure Australia, an Australian government body, also notes these two concerns. It says:
Lags in infrastructure provision cost the economy, but they also affect people's quality of life. If we don't get the timing of new housing and infrastructure right, our growth centres risk being characterised by congested roads, overcrowded trains and buses, over-enrolment in schools, hospital bed shortages and constraints on community infrastructure.
My next point: our considerable population growth has been linked to higher demand for housing and subsequently ever rising house prices, which for many Australians now puts owning their own home further out of reach. And it's not just population growth generally. One OECD study notes very clearly that evidence suggests that, 'changes in population growth stemming from increases in net migration tend to have a greater influence on real house prices in the medium-term than natural increases.'
The great and dedicated Australian Dick Smith has spoken about this is. Regarding the housing affordability crisis he very simply said:
… when you consider the scale of its impact on the problem, population growth gets very little scrutiny or debate relative to the other causes involved.
In fact, it is rarely acknowledged at all.
Let me say it up-front: Australia's immigration-fuelled population growth is a major cause of our country's housing affordability crisis. Mr Smith has also noted the number of years that it now takes to save up for a house deposit by saying 10 per cent of an average wage in 1975 was six years but in 2016 it is 25 years. They are all factors that highlight the impact of our high population growth on the ordinary Australian. The aspiration of owning a home is more and more at risk.
My final dot point is: population growth has also been linked to concerns about increased demands for jobs, stagnant wages growth, and subsequent unemployment and underemployment. An ABC analysis noted that Australia currently has a population growth rate of around 1.6 per cent, which is more than double the rate of the United Kingdom and of the USA and is driven, largely, by immigration. Other sources suggest a similar figure of 1.7 per cent growth. The ABC analysis also noted the subsequent impacts on wages and jobs. It said:
… in the short term an increase of the supply of labour through high migration should mean lower wages growth.
It also said:
… there are about 680,000 unemployed Australians and an additional 1 million Australians who have a job, but would like—
It's also been acknowledged that many of the jobs created in Australia these days are going to immigrants, further adding to the pressures on jobseekers and their families everywhere.
The Sydney Morning Herald recently noted that in recent years many additional full-time jobs have been created, but it's equally true that many of those jobs have gone to immigrants and other new entrants to the labour force, meaning the rate of unemployment hasn't fallen below five per cent. Despite these facts about our high population growth, there remains the belief in the Australian political and business sphere that high population growth is necessary to achieve high economic growth.
Big business also loves high immigration. Big retailers like Harvey Norman love high immigration because it means there are more customers to buy their products. But the influence of Mr Harvey and other corporate leaders in the debate should be lessened because the focus should be more on the quality of life of Australian residents and citizens, rather than the hip pockets of big businesses.
In the period from 1995 to 2011, the UK experience was that mass migration had made the country significantly poorer. There was a considerable difference between the value of the services they claimed and the amount of taxation they paid. The figure was initially estimated at a shortfall of 95 billion pounds but was later revised upwards to 114 billion pounds, before being raised further to 159 billion pounds.
The dot points I outlined suggest that the ordinary Australian, including Mr Morrison's 'quiet Australians', may not necessarily be seeing the supposed benefits of having more and more people coming here who are all seeking to be somehow satisfied in all these specific criteria. It is worth looking at the UK situation with regard to immigration, which has already been mirrored in some areas in Australia. The UK's population is some 2½ times that of Australia, and their net migration numbers are around the same as ours. Concern among citizens in the UK over this figure and the impact it was having on life in the UK can be attributed considerably to the result of the Brexit vote in 2016. Australia's current net migration, according to the latest budget papers, is around 271,000 people. It's not the figure of 190,000 that was bandied around in March just prior to the election, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story when an election is coming?
New migrants to the UK have almost seen it as arriving in heaven. They have often arrived from nations where living conditions are poorer, so the conditions of their new home, even though they might be poor by UK standards, are wonderful in comparison. Jobs are potentially more readily available because they are often prepared to work for wages that are much lower than those in their previous country of origin. In the book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, author Douglas Murray notes that:
High among the reasons why people flock to Europe are the knowledge that its welfare states will look after migrants who arrive, and the knowledge that however long it takes or however poorly migrants may be looked after they will still enjoy a better standard of living and a better roster of rights than anywhere else, let alone in their home countries.
New migrant workers are an attractive option for businesses. Because of this mindset, there is a demise of opportunities for existing citizens and residents.
We need to ensure the UK situation does not take hold more strongly here, so it's important that this issue is debated properly and that the facts and figures are clear for all to see. To use the terminology of Mr Murray, the situation 'will see people at the lower end of that market edged out of jobs by people from countries where wages and living standards are far lower and who are therefore willing to work for lower pay.'
We have seen elements of that emerging in Australia, with some migrants and overseas students workers being exploited because they either accept lower wages or they are oblivious to our legal wage minimums. Either way, they are filling jobs at a lower rate than that of other Australians and residents. It is not good for those looking for work, and it's not good for our economy. To add further to this situation, a high number of the migrants who are now experiencing and benefitting from the better living conditions of the UK, as they also do in Australia, are sending money back to family members still living back in poorer conditions in their former homelands. Murray, again:
The reality is that whatever its other benefits, the economic benefits of immigration accrue almost solely to the migrant. It is migrants who are able to access public facilities that have not been previously paid for. It is migrants who benefit from a wage higher than they could earn in their home country, and very often the money that they earn, or much of it, is sent to family outside the United Kingdom rather than being put back into the local economy. It is clear that economies of the host nation are impacted negatively by high rates of immigration.
As I touched on earlier, the Australian Prime Minister recently spoke of the aspirations of Australians: aspirations for a job; perhaps an apprenticeship; or to start their own business; to own a home and save for a comfortable retirement. These are typical traditional Australian aspirations. They are actually quite modest. But let's be honest: for many people they are slipping out of reach. In the past, they were almost a given. They were life's achievements, and they were quite reachable if you had a stable job and lived a sensible life. However, high immigration levels, among other things, are very much the cause of putting the barriers up that prevent these simple aspirations from being achieved.
Since 2007 Australia's population grew by five million, an overall increase of 25 per cent. There are predictions that our population will grow further in the next 50 years to 50 million people. I believe it will be more if we keep going at the rate we're going. Quite alarmingly, 60 per cent of Australia's population growth from 2006 to 2016 came from immigration. The impacts of immigration on areas of provision of services, employment, homeownership and the like also had noticeable impacts on other aspects of life, that is starting and building a family. Mr Murray notes that 'In the UK the majority of new births are from immigrants rather than existing citizens and residents.' If it is agreed that a particular country wishes to maintain a stable or slowly growing population, then before importing people from other states surely it would surely be more sensible to determine whether there are reasons why people in your own country are not at present having enough children. He adds, 'Only three types of people now have three children or more: the very rich, the very poor and recent immigrants.'
Is the high rate of growth by immigration good or bad? With all these facts and figures on the table I think it is a legitimate topic to debate. So I come back to my original question: do you think the current rate of immigration to Australia is too high? I believe I know the answer, but I think all Australians, those who live and breathe the consequences of our population growth every day, those who drive the congested roads and are on the crowded buses and trains and are stuck in the rental roundabout because house prices just keep rising while wages levels remain stagnant—it is those people who should be given the chance to vote on this issue so we can find out, once and for all, what the people really think.
In my previous speech on this topic I noted that the Lowy Institute survey reported a sharp spike in anti-immigration sentiment in 2018, causing its annual sentiment measure to change from positive to negative. The 2017 Scanlon survey reported 37 per cent of respondents see the current immigration intake as too high, but when respondents remained anonymous, 74 per cent that Australia did not need any more people. In the same year, the Australian Population Research Institute found that 54 per cent of respondents who were Australian voters wanted the number of immigrants reduced. So let's do a proper vote. Let every voter have a say and find out what all the people think together.
That's what I'm proposing in this bill, the Plebiscite (Future Migration Level) Bill 2018. I am proposing that a plebiscite be held, coinciding with the next federal election to ensure better convenience and to reduce costs, to ask all Australians their views on this high-impact issue. Let Australians be allowed to cast a vote, yes or no, and so collectively reveal if they believe our immigration rates are in fact too high. From there, we can determine what needs to be done to our immigration processes to make any changes that will have the flow-on effect that will improve general liveability in Australia, employment, housing affordability, less crowding in schools and hospitals, and similar issues.
The Prime Minister has previously raised the issue of an immigration cap to keep net migration to Australia at 160,000. A suggestion by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, following my lead, was that the figure should be cut further, perhaps as low as 110,000—I have even commented as low as 75,000—until we can get infrastructure and services for the Australian people and clean up our own backyard. We're met by concern as to whether it would blow out Australia's deficit further. The comments all add to the many mixed opinions and viewpoints that have contributed to this debate on this issue in the past.
Is the current rate of immigration to Australia too high? Let's put this simple question to the people, if the people in this parliament or this government have got the guts to do it. Let's hold the plebiscite, and hold it to coincide with the next federal election so we keep the cost down. Let's not sit on our hands on this issue any longer. Let's take steps to understand exactly what the people think, and then act with confidence on the resulting useful information. Yesterday I put a post on my Facebook page, Pauline Hanson's Please Explain, flagging this plebiscite, and in less than 24 hours it received more than 7,100 comments. That is quite staggering. It shows very clearly that people want to have their say on this matter. With all the politicians having their input, big businesses and researchers having their say, and academics putting in their two cents' worth about immigration, don't you think it's time for everyday Australians to also be heard? That, after all, is what democracy is all about.
I rise to speak against the private senators' bill put forward by Senator Hanson. There's nothing noble about this bill. It's long on alarmism and short on realism. No surprise, perhaps, given it has come from the party that has tried to push their anti-immigration agenda by moving a motion that praised the North Sentinelese tribe's strict zero-immigration policy—yes, the same tribe that killed American missionary John Chow last year.
I'm not here to question the motives behind the bill; they pale in comparison to the weak arguments on which the bill is built. Senator Hanson has said:
Our immigration policy is like a rider-less horse. It is dangerous. What we need is a rider, a population policy to safely guide the immigration horse.
Can I tell you that everything, and I mean everything, the government does in this space it does with the Australian people in mind. The Treasurer has an entire department. There is a tax office which looks at how many people we have, who is working, who isn't, how long we'll have those workers doing so or how long until we get some more, where those workers are and what they're earning to guide tax collection and spending. And, they're not working in the dark. The Australian Bureau of Statistics falls under the auspices of the Treasurer too. Likewise, the health minister looks at the population: where are the older people, where are the unvaccinated children, where do we need more doctors? I think you get the idea.
To help Senator Hanson understand just how much the health minister can read these things in real time, the Health Insurance Commission also collects statistics on the matter. If a person gets the flu and goes to the doctor before they go to bed for a week, we'll know about it. When that person becomes a number in the Australian Influenza Surveillance Report, it helps to inform our decision-making. In case you're wondering, there have been 153,272 cases of influenza this year up to 14 July.
Indeed, many people are probably uncomfortable with the amount of data that's being collected about Australians with a view to managing population and service delivery, but all of this shows that it isn't the government's first rodeo on this stuff. We understand the flow-on effects of population growth on the economy, on services, on Australians' day-to-day lives. Every day members of the team in cabinet, the ministry and our backbench are looking at population and adjusting policy and spending to deal with population changes. And, to top it all off, we have the population centre of excellence gathering all that data, comparing it against Australians' needs, now and in the future, and against other international options.
We have a clear immigration policy. It's called a plan for Australia's future population—creative, that one—and it manages Australia's immigration program in the short, medium and long term. Our plan reduces the permanent migration program cap by 15 per cent from 190,000 places to 160,000 places per year. That will make 120,000 fewer permanent visas available over the next four years.
Senator Hanson is concerned, it seems, that certain regions of our major cities have higher percentages of people who are born overseas. The government recognises that 75 per cent of Australia's entire population growth occurs, at this point in time, in our major cities. That's why our population plan encourages more new migrants to settle outside of our big cities and in smaller cities and regional areas. We're incentivising regional migration with two new regional visas for skilled workers: the skilled employer sponsored regional visa; and the skilled work regional visa. Migrants on these visas will need to demonstrate that they have lived and worked in regional Australia for three years before they can apply for permanent residency and 23,000 places have been set aside from the total for these regional visas. The hope and the expectation is that they will fall in love with all the wonderful things that rural and regional Australia has to offer. We have set up new $15,000 scholarships to be made available to over 1,000 international and domestic students to study in regional Australia—again, knowing that they will find it irresistible. And international students studying at regional universities will have access to an extra year in Australia on a post-study work visa.
Senator Hanson has argued that one of the biggest drawbacks of higher immigration is greater congestion and loss of amenity in our main cities, and I acknowledge that that's something that many people are concerned about. That's part of the reason why the government is investing a record $100 billion—not million, billion—in infrastructure over the next 10 years. Some examples of projects where funding that will cut congestion in Australia's cities include: $3.5 billion for the Western Sydney rail; $2 billion for fast rail to be built between Geelong and Melbourne; and $1 billion to upgrade the M1 in Queensland as well as exploration of fast rail heading to the Sunshine Coast also in my home state. We've quadrupled funds for further road congestion-busting projects through the Urban Congestion Fund, from $1 billion to $4 billion, and we're working with the states and territories to deliver vital infrastructure projects that match local population needs. We've made population management a fixture of COAG discussions, and I think that's a significant cultural change in the way people are approaching this issue.
The Centre for Population, which I referred to earlier in my address, has been established inside Treasury, and $23.4 million had been provided to establish that centre. There are about 20 people working in there doing nothing but looking at population. They will provide detailed analysis and advice on population issues now and in the future to help make sure that we have an informed debate on these subjects.
All of these elements of our plan will help to ease population pressures in our major capitals while helping to fill employment gaps in our smaller cities and regions and to grow their economies. That's what a sensible rate of immigration does—it helps to build our economic prosperity. But not once does Senator Hanson's bill address the need to ensure that we have economic prosperity and the role that immigration plays in ensuring that, both in our past and in our future. At this point in time there is necessity for immigration at some level to ensure our high economic performance and Australians' high expectations of living standards are met.
Senator Hanson says that the majority of Australians would say that the immigration rate is too high if they were told that 62 per cent of the population increase in the decade to 2016 was the result of immigration. Well, that may be so, but what would Australians say about our immigration level if they were told more honestly that, overwhelmingly, migrants have added to our nation by stimulating stronger growth, by creating jobs in our economy, by oftentimes doing jobs that Australians don't seem to want to do and by helping to slow the overall ageing of the Australian population?
A comprehensive research paper released by Treasury and the Department of Home Affairs last year found exactly this. It cites International Monetary Fund research showing our immigration program in its current state will add up to one percentage point to GDP growth each year from 2022 to 2050. The report found that our immigration programs' focus on skilled migrants of working age—that's important; we do need to be developing the skills base in this country—helped to limit the economic impact of Australia's ageing population. The contribution of these skilled migrants has lifted the standard of living here by 0.1 per cent of GDP per capita, increased productivity by 10 per cent—quite disproportionately, I'd suggest—and raised the workforce participation rate. Skilled migrants granted permanent visas in 2014-15 alone are estimated to make a combined lifetime tax contribution of almost $7 billion.
But here's the kicker. The Treasury paper warns that, if the current rate of migration is not maintained, we risk significantly lower economic growth and a substantial drop in Australians' living standards. You have to wonder whether those from One Nation plan to put that research before the Australian people if this mooted plebiscite were to go ahead. But, of course, they won't. The government understands and those opposite understand—and Senator Hanson should understand—that the fundamentals of this bill are flawed. I acknowledge that there are those in the community who hold concerns about our immigration levels—and I hear from them often. It's no wonder that they're scared when there is divisive rhetoric put forward by some in this chamber.
Now I've got concerns about plebiscites—fundamentally because it's our job to make the call on these things: to do the research, to gather the data, to make the fair and balanced case and ultimately to make decisions, and rise and fall on whether we get them right. I'm not a fan of a sustained practice of farming out to a plebiscite anything that's in the too-hard basket. But, putting that aside, it's not necessary, because this government has a plan for responsible levels of immigration. To reduce immigration as far as Senator Hanson proposes—down to just 70,000 people a year—would pose a major risk to our economy. It risks our AAA credit rating. It risks our record economic growth at a time when there is global uncertainty. It risks the headway that we have made to boost our economy with the passage of our personal income tax cuts package.
Over 320,000 jobs were created under this government over the last year. Employment has grown for 11 straight months, with unemployment down to 5.1 per cent. The participation rate is at a record high of 65.8 per cent. Last quarter the economy grew by 0.4 per cent, bringing the yearly growth rate to 1.8 per cent. We are in our 28th year of uninterrupted annual economic growth. Are there challenges ahead? Sure, but that's all the more reason we shouldn't jeopardise that steady, positive performance. And until all Australians experience the benefits of that growing economy, until Australians are feeling the benefits of rising wages as well as more job opportunities, we cannot rest.
This bill seeks to affirm a policy that would put all this economic improvement at risk. Why would we ask the Australian people to support a policy that is so plainly against their own economic interests? This country can attribute much of its economic success to our immigration program—in combination with other activities, of course—and our growing numbers are being managed successfully through the government's population plan. This bill endorses a solution that would have catastrophic consequences for our economy, for a problem that is already being addressed by this government in a sensible, measured and long-sighted way. For that reason, I cannot support it.
I rise also today to speak against Senator Hanson's private member's bill, the Plebiscite (Future Migration Level) Bill 2018. As senators will remember, when this bill was initially introduced in the last parliament, Labor opposed it vigorously. Our position has not changed. The plebiscite does not do anything other than provide a question. There is no definitive outcome on immigration rates or levels, regardless of what the outcome of the vote is. We recognise that the story of our country, the story of us, is tied to our heritage as a migration nation. Migrants come to Australia—a lot do—but they come here in search of a better life, not just for themselves but for their families. And why wouldn't they? After all, we live in the greatest country on earth.
Today nearly half of all Australians either were born overseas or have at least one parent who was. In my own case, my parents came here in the late 1960s because they knew that Australia was a country where they could work hard, get ahead and create a future for their children. They're not alone. They join roughly 7½ million others since the end of World War II. We owe much of our prosperity as a nation to those who made this journey. Indeed, the Australia that we all know and enjoy today simply would not have been possible were it not for the contribution of people who were born overseas and their children and grandchildren.
Senator Hanson has ignored the benefits of migration, particularly the economic benefits. Migrants have helped to drive our economy. One in three small businesses in Australia are run by migrants, and migrant owners employ around 1.4 million workers right across Australia. As outlined by Treasury in the April 2018 report Shaping anation, the contribution to our economy by migrant intake alone was worth $10 billion over five years. That report stated:
… migration improves the Commonwealth's fiscal position, since migrants are likely to contribute more to tax revenue than they claim in social services or other government support.
In my home state of Victoria, one can barely walk down a mall or shopping strip without seeing the value that migrants make to our economy. But central to the defence against the kind of divisiveness proposed in this bill is not merely the important role that migration plays in our economy; rather, it is advancing the vision that we all have for this great nation. In Melbourne, what would Lygon Street be without the coffee machines brought over the seas by migrants from Italy? What would Box Hill be without its numerous dumpling restaurants opened by Chinese migrants who wanted to make something for themselves? What would Oakleigh be without the smell of roasting meat cooked in the traditional Greek way gently waffling down Eaton Mall?
Labor understands Australians are frustrated with stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and clogged infrastructure; however, migrants are not to blame. The truth is that this nation would not be what it is today without the contributions made to it by those who have come here in the hope of making a great contribution to Australia. It is not for us to subject this to a divisive and, perfectly honestly speaking, hurtful plebiscite. Whilst Labor accepts that this is important—that we make sure that we get the balance right in managing our migration program—this is the responsibility of the government with the best advice at hand. There is simply no place in our inclusive and proudly diverse nation for an expensive opinion poll on questions that don't need to be asked.