Bill to expand immigration minister’s border powers hangs in the balance

Its success depends on the support of crossbenchers, with Labor signalling it will reject it in its current form

Sister Brigid Arthur says ‘the powers of the minister under this bill are being drastically increased’. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

The fate of a controversial border protection bill that would expand the powers of the immigration minister hangs in the balance, with Labor signalling it is unlikely to vote for the legislation in its current form.

The success of the bill depends on the support of crossbenchers, including the Palmer United party who in September struck a deal with the Coalition to vote for the legislation.

Asylum seeker advocates say the migration and maritime power legislation amendment bill is designed to allow the minister to limit the role of the courts by bypassing the review process.

It puts the onus on asylum seekers to show a more than 50% chance that they will be persecuted if they return to their home countries in order to qualify for a protection visa.

It also includes the reintroduction of temporary protection visas (TPVs).

“Already we’re seeing the ministerial powers exercised so that people are not getting visas. [This bill] is about stopping the courts from being able do their job of interpreting the law by passing laws to put them out of the picture,” Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said. “This bill fundamentally changes the way we’re going to deal with refugees, turning Australia into an asylum seeker-free zone.”

“The powers of the minister under this bill are being drastically increased,” said Sister Brigid Arthur, head of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project.

“The minister has the sole power, if this bill becomes law, to actually arrange for the detention of people on the high seas and then to move those people to whatever country or whatever place he or she determines. There would be virtually no scrutiny of parliament of that power.”

The bill passed the lower house on Wednesday, despite Labor and a number of crossbenchers voting against it.

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, urged Labor to vote for the bill in the senate, telling parliament that failing to pass it would add to budget costs and keep children in detention.

He said Labor’s handling of border protection in government was “chaotic” and that they “haven’t learnt from their mistakes”.

Labor refused to vote for the bill unless amendments were made, including scrapping the reintroduction of TPVs. Even if these amendments are made, the Opposition won’t vote on the legislation until the Senate hands down a report into the legislation, due on 27 November.

“It is up to the Labor party to do the right thing here, and those of us on the crossbench … who feel strongly about this to lobby our colleagues and make sure they understand how diabolical this bill will be [if passed],” said Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who voted against the bill in the House of Representatives, said there was “strong opposition” to the policy from both sides of the political spectrum.

“Regrettably, too many [MPs] just do what their party tells them.”

Pamela Curr
Refugee and Detention Rights Advocate
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

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