Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (10:48): [by video link] Australia is an open nation. We are a welcoming people, and we stand towards the world with open arms. We have a proud multicultural history and there is no doubt that the vast majority of immigrants to Australia have greatly enriched the story of this nation. These immigrants uphold Australian values, support our way of life, contribute to our democracy and feel proud to be Australian.
These are people of good character, who think Australia is a country worth protecting. However, it is simply common sense that we must be alert to the inherent dangers that accompany our otherwise generous immigration policies. It is an unfortunate truth that not all who wish to come to this country do so with
honesty or integrity. Serious and hardened criminals often attempt to enter the country on false pretences, seeking to do us harm, threatening the safety of our children, undermining our social order and corroding our way of life.
It is the duty of every government to provide for the safety and protection of its people. This government will not shirk that duty. This bill stands as a testament to the government’s commitment to see Australians safe and secure from any threat which lurks beyond our borders.
Before I move to the substance of the bill, I want to challenge the Greens’ extreme opposition to the bill and some of the unfortunate remarks made by Senator McKim, which I won’t repeat. I will say this in relation to his advocacy for a bill of rights. Over the past 18 months we’ve seen many what I regard as fundamental breaches of human rights here in Victoria under the guise of health restrictions—people being locked in their homes with no warning and no medication, as happened with the public housing towers in Flemington last year. Victorians have been locked out of their homes for weeks on end under the guise, again, of border protection, under circumstances where people were effectively forced into homelessness and where some people were denied the right to seek medical treatment from their own doctor. Of course, there’s the overnight curfew. It has been impressed upon the state government for such a long time that this is wholly unnecessary. There is a charter of human rights and responsibilities in Victoria,
and this made absolutely no difference to constraining the exercise of power and these draconian restrictions under the guise of health orders. It is disappointing, I note for the record, that the Greens have not raised their voices in relation to some of these serious transgressions of human rights. I now move to this bill, which amends section 501 of the Migration Act to provide that a person will objectively
not pass the character test if the person has been convicted of a designated offence which carries a maximum sentence of not less than two years. The minister and his delegates within the department will then have the discretion to cancel or refuse a visa on that basis. A designated offence—I reiterate this, particularly given the remarks of Senator Griff—is not a minor offence. It is an offence which involves violence against a person, nonconsensual conduct of a sexual nature, breaching an order made by a court or tribunal for the personal protection of another person or using or possessing a weapon. Any offence which commands a jail sentence of a minimum of two years is a serious offence in this country. So this is no free-for-all.
In making a decision to cancel or refuse a visa on this ground, the department will need to take into account a wide range of factors contained within a binding ministerial discretion. Those factors include: the protection of the Australian community from criminal or other serious conduct; the best interests of minors in Australia; expectations of the Australian community; Australia’s international obligations; the impact on victims; and the nature and extent of the person’s ties to Australia. The bill provides a clear standard for anyone seeking to enter this country as to what kind of person we expect them to be. The bill also enables the minister or his delegates to prevent criminals, including people convicted of violent assault related offences, from coming to this country who might otherwise slip through our current legal regime. By strengthening the character test in the Migration Act, this bill strengthens Australia’s security and protects the Australian people. Moreover, it does this in a sophisticated way. For example, the proposed subsection 501(7AA)(b) provides that a person’s conviction for an offence of common assault or an equivalent offence is taken not to be a conviction for a designated offence unless the act constituting the offence for which the person was convicted causes
or substantially contributes to bodily harm to another person or harm to another person’s mental health within the meaning of the Criminal Code—in both cases temporarily or permanently—or involves family violence as defined by the Family Law Act by the person in relation to another person. Let me reiterate: this means that low-level assaults, including threats, that neither cause nor contribute to a person’s bodily harm or harm their mental health and do not involve family violence will not cause a person to fail the character test. However, if a low-level assault does involve family violence then this will constitute a designated offence. As I say and reiterate, this is not about minor offences. This relates to more serious offences to ensure that the Australian community does not come under any threat from any person who has slipped through the net. So not only does this bill reflect the government’s attention to concerns that the designated offences grounded in the original bill may unintentionally capture low-level offending—and certainly we have addressed that—it also demonstrates the government’s commitment to
combatting family violence wherever it occurs.
We have heard that there are some, including senators opposite and some members of the crossbench and the Greens, who think this bill is wholly unnecessary, that it unduly gives the minister too much power to restrict
immigration. There are some who even argue that the bill is problematic because it might harm our relations with other countries. To those people I say: where is your concern for the Australian people? This is, first and foremost, about protecting our community. The bill gives the minister the power to stop convicted criminals from entering this great country. That is not overreach, that is not unnecessary—far from it. It is wholly right and good that the government does everything in its power to safeguard our freedoms and our way of life.
The government’s record on this issue is impressive and it far outstrips Labor’s paltry efforts. The Rudd-Gillard government refused only 1,128 visas on character grounds. In contrast, after significant reforms in 2013-14, as we heard in the excellent contribution from Senator Van, this government has already cancelled or refused visas to over 9,900 serious criminals. That’s almost 10 times as many serious criminals kept out of the Australian community than under Labor. Of the 9,900 cancellations and refusals, 216 were for murder; 1,372 were for sexual offences,
including 905 for child sex and child pornography offences, rape and serious sexual offences against adults; 498 were for armed robbery, 1,701 were for drug offences; 37 were for kidnapping; and nearly 4,000 were for other violent offences, including assault, grievous bodily harm, reckless injury, domestic violence, stalking, intimidation, use of a weapon and attempted murder. Furthermore, the government has cancelled or refused visas to over 320 organised crime figures, including members of outlaw motorcycle gangs. These figures demonstrate the
government’s commitment to keeping our community safe. This bill also would not result in the automatic cancellation—and this is an important point—or refusal of any visas at all. Rather, this bill gives the minister and his delegates the power to review the visa status of any noncitizen convicted of a serious criminal offence. The bill also makes sure that visa applications are reviewed carefully and in accordance with clear criteria. This is prudent. As far as our relations with other countries are concerned, the government’s first and overriding duty is to the people of Australia, not the governments of other countries or their
representatives. The government was elected by the people of Australia and we intend to govern in their interests— cognisant, of course, of the important role that our government plays and our country plays in the global community and the responsibilities we have to other nations. The government is proud of its efforts and success in protecting the people of this great nation. We know that the Australian people value commonsense legislation when it comes to protecting their communities—and this bill is exactly that. Common sense dictates that if nefarious people wish to enter this country we must stop them. It’s as simple as that. Even the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Albanese, agrees that serious criminals who are visa holders should be deported from this country. This bill also affirms that other maxim of common sense: entry into Australia is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege to enter this country, partake of its freedoms, enjoy its democratic culture
and flourish in its egalitarian spirit. This is a critical bill, and the current proposed amendments are crucial to ensuring the government meets the expectations of the Australian people that noncitizens wishing to enter this country who have been convicted of serious crimes will be appropriately dealt with. It is of paramount importance that we pass this bill so that the government can do its great work in protecting Australians from threats to their livelihoods, to their families and to
their wellbeing, and to first and foremost keep Australian communities safe.
I commend this bill to the Senate.