Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020


Peter Khalil: The Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 is a renewed attempt by the government to amend the Migration Act to allow the minister to prohibit or ban almost any item from use within an immigration detention facility, including the alternative forms of detention facilities such as hotels like the Preston Mantra and the Kangaroo Point hotel. I cannot, at least in my initial review or analysis, understand this bill. What I mean by that is that I really can’t fathom the government’s rationale or reasoning, because prohibited items are already illegal under state, territory and Commonwealth laws, particularly drugs, child exploitation material or weapons, as they present an obvious risk to detainees and to staff. They should be prohibited.

Labor and I oppose this bill, in summary, for a couple of reasons: there is no justification for this bill and its sweeping powers, and it is also a bill which has clear impingements upon the human rights of detainees. So what is the reason, if not the reasoning, for the government to put this bill up again? Let me just go through some of these reasons why we oppose this bill. The first is that it is, I can only assume, another power grab by Minister Tudge and Minister Dutton. This is deja vu—another power grab from the Minister for Home Affairs, because the government already has broad powers under the Migration Act and has already utterly failed to make the case as to why illegal activities in detention centres cannot be handled on a case-by-case basis through those existing state, territory and Commonwealth laws. Again, this bill is deja vu. It’s been here before, and it’s been opposed before. It grants the Minister for Home Affairs more significant unchecked powers, giving the minister the ability to prohibit or ban almost any item from use within an immigration detention facility. Of course, we are concerned that the minister and the government have not established or even elaborated on how existing laws and common-law powers are insufficient in addressing those issues.

The bill also undermines Australia’s commitment to human rights, fair and just legal processes, and natural justice. No matter who you are, you deserve to be treated fairly and you deserve to be treated with dignity, because this is Australia and people in immigration detention are people—people who are under our protection, who we are responsible for. Forty-two per cent of the total immigration detention cohort has been in detention for over a year. Almost 26 per cent of the total cohort has been in detention for over two years.

This bill would allow removal of phones, SIM cards and almost any other item. As we’ve heard, mobile phones generally provide a positive benefit to detainees and their welfare. I know this because I’m in contact, and have been in contact, with detainees at some of these facilities, on the phone—I’ve spoken to them. If those people had had to go without their phones, it would have been extremely difficult to get their story heard, to be able to express themselves and to be in touch with family, friends and legal teams, as we’ve heard. The phones are a lifeline to people in detention. Due to COVID restrictions, people held in detention have not had any visits from family, from friends or from their lawyers since 20 March. Imagine being in a stage 4 lockdown, as we are here in Victoria, without your phone, with no way to communicate with your loved ones—no social media, no Zoom. As much as we all complain about being ‘Zoomed out’, it’s a necessary technological function that allows us to communicate.

Mobile phones have become the primary means of contact for detainees. Importantly, they allow detainees access to their lawyers, who can protect their legal rights. The current legal frameworks permit the confiscation of a mobile phone from a detainee if there is reasonable cause. This is as is should be. However, this bill, with a blanket ban on phones, threatens rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The bill also proposes to permit strip searches of individuals living in immigration detention, regardless of whether a suspicion has been formed that the individual is concealing a prohibited item. This is simply unjust. It’s simply unacceptable. The government simply have not made a case as to why these broad, sweeping powers are required—except, I suspect, for the one reason they won’t actually articulate or admit, and that’s for a power grab, another grab at more unchecked power for the Minister for Home Affairs.

In lockdown here in Victoria with COVID-19, and across Australia, we have all experienced this. The government continues its default position of inhumane treatment of people in these facilities. Cramped conditions in detention centres, like the Mantra hotel in Preston, just outside my electorate, represent a very high-risk environment for coronavirus to be transmitted. Social distancing is effectively impossible, and I’ve heard this directly from the individuals in those centres. I’ve spoken to them. They’re terrified of contracting the virus. A reasonable approach would be to organise the release of detainees who have been cleared through security checks and have friends or family who could support them. Many people in immigration detention are in administrative detention. They have committed no crime. If they were released under those conditions, it would protect their mental and physical health and would assist in the nationwide efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Where is the government’s plan to protect people in immigration detention facilities from COVID-19? This is another failure, like the many we’ve seen in the Immigration portfolio and in the Home Affairs portfolio.

This bill is just the latest in a long line of failures, trying it on with another pathetic dog whistle, which this bill basically is. I’ve seen the former Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Minister Tudge, tweet recently, and I’ll quote him:

Labor’s failures on immigration and border protection are well known, but their latest move to block legislation—

the legislation we are talking about—

that will keep Australians safe from paedophiles, violent extremists and other serious criminals is gobsmacking.

Really, Minister? ‘Gobsmacking’? He talks about saving us from paedophiles and criminals, but this minister clearly does not know the law. As I have said and as many speakers have said—and it bears repeating, and hopefully the minister is listening or watching—prohibited items are already illegal under state, territory and Commonwealth laws, particularly drugs, child exploitation material or weapons, as they present an obvious risk to detainees and to staff. So why don’t the minister and the government focus on their jobs? In fact, what is gobsmacking, what is utterly shocking, is their repeated failure on the substantive work necessary in this portfolio.

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.