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Issue #1668      December 10, 2014

A govt of lies and secrecy

On the last day of hearings for 2014, the Senate handed the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison unprecedented arbitrary powers to play god with the lives of desperate people seeking asylum and a new life in Australia. Instead of opening our arms and welcoming them into our community, the Minister will have extraordinary powers to decide their fate, including return them to their homeland even if it means certain death, torture or imprisonment.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 on Friday December 5 will enshrine his decision-making in secrecy and leave his victims with almost no right of appeal against adverse decisions. The Bill gives the Minister the powers to ignore international law and usurp the functions of the judicial system.

The term “legacy caseload” in the title of the Bill refers to the 30,000 backlog of asylum seeker claims, most of which accumulated under Labor. The Abbott government refers to them as “illegal maritime arrivals” or “IMAs”, but they are not illegal under Australian or international law. This is one big political lie designed to pit Australians against asylum seekers.

Labor certainly has little to be proud of in its treatment of asylum seekers and the filling of what amounts to offshore concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island. To its credit Labor voted against the Bill last week.

“Just when you think this government cannot get any more vindictive in its treatment of innocent families fleeing war and violence and just when you think this government could not get any more sadistic, secretive and authoritarian in its attitude towards some of the most vulnerable people in the world, this government finds a way to surprise you,” Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said in his speech opposing the Bill.

“To deter people from fleeing the Iranian secret police, the medieval violence of the Taliban, the horrors faced by the Rohingya in the western part of Burma and the murderous repression that passes for official state policy in Sri Lanka inevitably means your policy ends up in a very dark place indeed. The United Nations has recognised this. The Australian High Court has recognised this,” Ludlam said.

The Bill, which is clearly in breach of international law, removes references to the Refugee Convention from other legislation and attempts to absolve Australia from its obligations under a number of international Conventions. It also appears to be unconstitutional.

The Bill includes provisions for:

  • Reintroduction of the Howard government’s temporary protection visas (TPVs)
  • A new Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV)
  • “Fast tracking” of refugee processing to clear backlog of 30,000 protection visa applicants
  • Removal of the right to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT)
  • Ministerial power to detain, turn-back or send boats with asylum seekers to anywhere in the world or forcibly remove asylum seekers from boats, regardless of international law or the law of other countries
  • “Reinterpreting” Australia’s obligations under UN Refugee Convention
  • A narrower definition of eligibility for “refugee” status
  • A cap on Australia’s annual refugee intake, regardless of those entitled to be settled in Australia as refugees under the UN Refugee Convention – to be raised from 13,700 to 18,750 over the next four years
  • Release of children on Christmas Island before Christmas if Bill is passed
  • Legalising refoulement contrary to Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under international law. (Refoulement is the return of victim of persecution to their persecutor)
  • Removing the 90-day time limit for deciding protection visa applications at each stage

Temporary Protection Visas

Temporary Protection Visas were first introduced by the Howard government in 1999 and later abolished by Labor when elected in 2007. The banning of family reunions was supposed to act as a deterrent.

Far from acting as a disincentive, TPVs resulted in an increase in the number of boat arrivals. Instead of men leaving their families behind, there was a dramatic increase in the number of women and children attempting the perilous journey. So much for the government’s and Clive Palmer’s claimed concerns for children!

People holding TPVs will be allowed to work, have access to Medicare and social security rights but denied family reunion rights. They will be granted for a maximum of three years.

Safe Haven Enterprise Visas

Now, visa applicants on TPVs who are part of the backlog will be able to apply for a new visa, the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) with a maximum life of five years. The SHEV is a temporary protection visa which permits its holder to work, provides them with access to Medicare and social security.

There is a catch. SHEV holders will be required to confine themselves to designated regions and encouraged to fill regional job vacancies. Either a state or federal government or an employer can request to be designated.

Those on SHEV will be at the mercy of employers. If, after 3.5 years of continuous employment the holder has not required access to income support, they may be granted other onshore visas, such as family and skilled visas or student visas.

The billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer formed and funded a political party which seems to be serving his own business interests quite well. So far the Palmer United Party has assisted in getting rid of the mining tax, the carbon tax and now he has added another notch to his belt with the possibility of vulnerable labour in regional and remote areas.

Fast track processing

One of the most dangerous features of the Bill is its new “fast-tracking” regime. The Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) will no longer hear appeals if the Department rejects a protection visa application. The RRT previously re-examined the evidence and held a hearing with the applicant and any witnesses in person and looked at any additional evidence.

Now, a new body, the Immigration Assessment Authority, will examine paperwork with no obligation to examine new evidence or interview the applicant. It is obliged to be “efficient and quick”, whereas the RRT was guided by the principle of being “fair and just”.

The Bill provides for rejected applicants to be promptly removed from Australia. This section exempts Australia from its non-refoulement obligations “which has had the effect of limiting the availability of the removal powers”!

In effect applicants for protection visas will be denied justice under a system shrouded in secrecy and based on clearing the decks and shipping out as many people as possible.

Dirty deal

In the Senate, the Greens, Labor, Jacqui Lambie (ex-Palmer United Party) and John Madigan opposed the Bill. Clive Palmer did a deal with Morrison giving the government the votes of the two PUP Senators – Glen Lazarus and Dio Wang. Nick Xenophon, Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm and Rick Muir provided the government with the final four votes it needed to get the bill through.

While children were used as the bargaining chip to bring on board some independents or give them an excuse for voting for it, Clive Palmer was not sucked in. Palmer was in the driving seat.

“Scott Morrison has successfully blackmailed the Senate cross bench by holding refugee children hostage,” the Greens’ immigration spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

“Never before has a Minister behaved in such a brutal way when dealing with the Senate and vulnerable children. Telling Senators that they’d better do what he wants or kids will be destroyed is a disgraceful new low for Scott Morrison,” Hanson-Young said.

“The factories of abuse, death and mental illness on Nauru and Manus Island will continue to destroy people, including hundreds of children.”

While the deal provides for children on Christmas Island to be brought to Australia, Morrison is sending children of asylum seekers born in Australia with their parents to Nauru Island. These children will be denied citizenship and left stateless. They are being punished because their parents fled persecution, war and other life threatening situations, and sought protection in Australia, which is their right under international law.

Package of Bills

Two other related bills were before the Parliament last week. The first of them, the Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation) Bill 2014 gives the Immigration Minister greater powers to cancel or refuse visas without review. It was passed on November 26 with the support of Labor.

The Australian Citizenship and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 extends the powers of the Immigration Minister to revoke citizenship. For example, at present the Minister can revoke citizenship if a court first proves it was obtained through fraud or misrepresentation. This Bill enables the Minister to be accuser and judge, bypassing the Court. It is still before Parliament.

The Law Council has come out strongly against the legislation, saying that it would “undermine the rule-of-law principle that all people are entitled to the presumption of innocence and to fair and public trial.”

“In particular, the Law Council considers that no one should be subject to punitive action by the state unless he or she has first been found guilty of an offence by an independent, impartial and competent tribunal.” (The Saturday Paper, Nov 29-Dec 6, 2014)

Greg Barns, spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Association, said, “There is now enormous power invested in the Minister for Immigration to make life or death decisions for very vulnerable people. This is the sort of thing we would expect to see in authoritarian regimes, not in Australia.”

These remarks apply even more so to the Asylum Seeker legislation. The passing of the Asylum Seeker Bill marks a dark day in Australia’s history, indicative of a government and ruling class prepared to abandon bourgeois democracy for an authoritarian regime.

Next article – Editorial – Fight for your ABC in 2015

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