Immigration Senate Estimates: What we need to know (Part A)

I attended the last day of Senate Estimates for the Department of Immigration back in November. I wasn’t very impressed.

The next session is scheduled for February 24 and 25. Instead of simply commenting, I thought I’d lay out what I see as important questions and areas for investigation.

Given there is only one day of questioning and time-limits are now enforced by the new chairperson of the committee, Senator McDonald, questions should be short, clear and leave little room to wiggle from senior public servants. Too often a line of questioning is based in little more than a hunch, making it very difficult to pin down responses. By narrowing the scope of questions, it is more likely to succeed in useful eliciting information.

Most of the questions from last Senate Estimates have been answered. This allows questions to be incorporated into a previous theme or the information provided may throw up interesting results.

Operation Sovereign Borders

There are obviously matters and procedures that the public service, military included, will not discuss. For instance, in SE13-0120, Kim Carr asked about the number of times assistance was provided by the Navy to asylum seeker boats. The answer included a table with the number of instances from January 2013 to September 2013, then:

“Information relating to operational and on-water matters after the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders on 18 September 2013, will not be provided.”

Call me naive, but this is bullshit. The fact the public service is not providing information to Senators is a manifest change to how Senate Estimates operates and a poor outcome for political accountability in Australia. It’s time to call this out, loudly. Jump up and down if you need to. Draw it out and make sure everyone remembers millions of public dollars are being spent in an area where there was public accountability right up until the day the Abbott government was elected. Of course, answers will not be forthcoming but it is critical to remind those watching this is a government intent on hiding behind secrecy provisions instead of providing what should be public information.

Onto more concrete matters. Operation Sovereign Borders is currently the most substantial threat to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. This should be a focus point. It would be a clear sign of frustration if the Indonesian government or bureaucracy had cancelled any pre-arranged meetings or delegations with Australian staff regarding Operation Sovereign Borders. This can be found out via schedules, calendars and other documents. We already know some participation has been withdrawn but drawing out exactly what has changed will highlight the damage this policy is doing to regional relationships. A strong line of questions seeking this out will add further substance to the claims this government is trashing one of Australia’s most important foreign relationships. Skip the bombastic claims and get to the evidence.

“Follow the money”. Those big yellow lifeboats don’t purchase themselves. Information about equipment specifically purchased for use in Operation Sovereign Borders is still subject to government procurement processes. Government procurement is littered with documentation, budgets, invoices and memos. The lifeboats are the most obvious example however other purchases, such as service delivery of the Manus Island redevelopment (via documents such as this “Concept Design Report – Part A” [.pdf]), will all have contracts attached to them. Even little things, like asking for a copy of Part B of the Concept Design Report, can help uncover bits and pieces. Information will not be disclosed about when and where purchases are used, but by building a picture of what has been bought, where things came from and the detail behind the purchases, more understanding can be sought on how Operation Sovereign Borders works in practice.

Speaking of Manus Island, new reports from the Guardian suggest “extreme risks” relating to the processing centre. The key here is not go after Manus Island as a whole, given ALP policy is exactly the same, but to discover whether the fast tracking of expansion is causing difficulties and potentially creating a dangerous environment for asylum seekers, Australian staff and contractors. Scott Morrison has put a lot of effort into quickly ramping up the capacity of offshore facilities. If anything has gone wrong due to this, there should be outcomes and events which link back to haste. A hardline of questions seeking to uncover exactly what has occurred here, using procurement documents, timetables and other matters, may allow a more precise charge of inept implementation.

The issue of forced deportations should also be raised. The Guardian highlights here that the Afghani Ambassador has raised humanitarian concerns for at least one man facing deportation. Forced deportations are an important part of policy to ‘deter’ asylum seekers, however they are rare (relative to the number of total arrivals) because they are so difficult. Specifically, the Ambassador says “We have not been asked to give this person a travel permit or identify this person… So basically it’s been overlooked … the whole process we used to have.”

This is an incredible charge. Here is the head diplomat of Afghanistan saying bureaucratic processes which used to occur, now don’t. Is this true? If so, what has changed and will this impact on people forced from Australia?  What was the intention behind the change of process, if true? When the Ambassador of the receiving country is voicing his displeasure in the national media, something has gone seriously wrong. The High Court stayed his deportation on Wednesday and is today hearing the matter.

Temporary Protection Visas may have been voted down last year by the ALP and the Greens, however Lenore Taylor writes they are being practically implemented as asylum seekers living in the community cannot lodge a permanent protection visa application. This is now subject to court challenge, which was accepted on 23 January. While the matter now rests with the High Court, it should be assumed there is a range of “Plan B’s” being discussed and kicked around in the various scenarios. If the ALP has decided against TPVs and in favour of permanent protection, it is important to find out as much as possible about what other options are available to the government and understand the different policy implications.

Finally, the Code of Conduct for Bridging Visa E. These people live in the community and are waiting for their formal visa application to be decided. I wrote about this here. It is a spiteful, mean policy designed to appeal to the worst in public opinion. Information about breaches should be sought immediately, enabling a campaign against such a policy. As put so eloquently by Andrew Carr:

It’s time to push home this message. Finding out as much as possible about the Code of Conduct is imperative to undermining the central message the government is trying to push: asylum seekers don’t belong in Australia.

I’ll cover other parts of immigration policy tomorrow (457s, students, humanitarian migration).

One last thing. It’s time the ALP left the holier than thou attitudes at the door. The ALP introduced the most effective, but also perhaps the most contentious piece of asylum policy, with the PNG policy. This is policy they still support, something I agree with as an attempt to deal with the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia via boat and risking death. Senators may not agree with this policy, but the party is signed up and have rightly not backed away. The key for this Senate Estimates is to highlight the mismanagement, avoidance of public accountability and the cruelty of Scott Morrison’s approach to asylum seekers without pretending the ALP doesn’t have a complex past of its own.

 Read Part B

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