Strengthening search and seizure powers in immigration detention, COVID-19 border restrictions.
ALAN TUDGE: Well, today, I've just introduced a bill into the Parliament to strengthen the security arrangements in our immigration detention facilities. Now, as everybody probably knows, when we first came to office, there was about 10,000 people in immigration detention facilities in Australia. Now there's only about 1400 people. But the makeup is very different. Because of all of the work we have been doing in relation to using Section 501 to kick people out for criminal activity, it means that about two-thirds of the people in the detention facilities today have criminal histories. And the law though has not kept up with this fact. And therefore, it means our detention facilities are not always safe for other detainees. They're not always safe for some of the staff members and sometimes indeed, other people outside the community are put at risk as well. At present, the laws only allow, for example, the Australian Border Force officers, who look after the detention facilities, to search for three items. They can only search for weapons, for escape aides and for immigration documents. What this means - and this is in some respects quite ludicrous now - is that they can't search for things like drugs. They can't remove mobile phones if people using mobile phones inappropriately. And we need to change these laws and we've introduced a bill today to do so.
I want to give some very clear examples of the types of things which have been occurring but which we have been unable to act on to date, for you to really understand why we need to put this bill through the Parliament and get it enacted. At present, for example, we have had cases where drugs have been thrown over the fence line to people inside the detention facilities. We have seen this on video, on the security footage, yet the Australian Border Force officers are unable presently to search the detainees' rooms or their person to find those drugs. We've had instances where convicted child sex offenders have been using their mobile phones inside of the detention facilities to communicate with the parents of his victims. And that's absolutely disgraceful. And yet, the Australian Border Force officers have been unable to remove that mobile phone from that individual. We've had instances where people who are in those detention facilities because they've got extremist ideologies and they've had their visa cancelled on character grounds consequently and are about to leave the country, they've had iPads in the facilities. They've been showing extremist ideological footage to other people in the detention facilities and the Australian Border Force commissioners have been unable to remove those iPads. These instances are clearly unacceptable. They put other detainees at risk. They put staff at risk. And they sometimes put the community at risk.
And so the legislation, which I've introduced into the Parliament today will strengthen the Australian Border Force's powers. It will enable them to search for drugs. It will enable them to confiscate a mobile phone or another device where it's been inappropriately used. It will enable sniffer dogs to go in and search premises for drugs when we know that drugs have been introduced into those detention facilities. All of the normal protections will still apply, but these are very important measures to be introduced. The last time we tried to do this, the Labor Party blocked them, and by blocking them, they put other people at risk. We hope that they will support this bill now that we've reintroduced it again. We've made some amendments following a Senate inquiry into it and it is a good bill. It needs to pass for the safety of decent people who are running those facilities, for the safety of other people in detention centres and also for the safety of the community.
QUESTION: What about people who aren't criminals in those centres? Particularly in relation to mobile phones, isn't that just going to unfairly take away their communication with the outside world?
ALAN TUDGE: So it won't be a blanket ban of mobile phones. The Australian Border Force will have the discretion to be able to remove mobile phones when they know that they've been inappropriately used. I would also say that there always will be fixed line phones and computers within those facilities as well, which anybody will still be able to use.
QUESTION: So are you saying that if someone in there who doesn't have a criminal history is using their mobile phone to contact family, or potentially the media, that Border Force officials won't confiscate that phone?
ALAN TUDGE: No.
QUESTION: On the timing of this legislation, yesterday we saw Peter Dutton put forward an expansion of ASIO's powers. Today, we've seen you put forward the expansion of Border Force's powers. Why is there this sudden push? Given especially that we're in the middle of a pandemic, why is this decision being made to push for these powers now?
ALAN TUDGE: Well, I mean, we've been reintroducing a number of bills this week on all sorts of different topics. This is an urgent bill because people's safety is at risk right now. We've tried to introduce it in the past and it was blocked by the Labor Party and we're trying to do so again, having made some amendments following a Senate inquiry. And it's an important bill for the safety of the community and particularly for the safety of the staff who look after those facilities.
QUESTION: Are you concerned though that people could see this as you try to sneak in this expansion of powers when people's minds are focused on other matters?
ALAN TUDGE: This is an important bill in and of itself. I mean, when a child sex offender is presently able to use his mobile phone to communicate with the parents of the victims, that is unacceptable. And presently, Australian Border Force do not have the power to remove that phone. We want to give them that power. Absolutely, categorically, there is no way in the world that that person should have a mobile phone in the detention facility. There is no way in the world the people who are conducting criminal activities inside the detention facilities should have access to a mobile phone. Of course, we need to be able to search for drugs inside the detention facilities. These are straightforward matters as far as I'm concerned, and I think the Australian people would just expect us to be able to do these things. But presently, the law does not allow that to occur.
QUESTION: Do you think that this is going to affect the mental health of some of the people in those detention facilities who don't have a criminal record, that you're going to be taking away their communication with the outside world?
ALAN TUDGE: We're not doing that. They will still be able to use a landline; they'll have access to computers and indeed the Australian Border Force will have the discretion to remove mobile phones. It's not going to be a blanket ban across every single person. So if it is a person who is in a detention facility because, for whatever reason other than a criminal reason and they're not using their mobile phone for inappropriate means, they will be able to keep their mobile phone and continue to use them.
QUESTION: You've spoken about how these measures are targeted at those people with a criminal history. What safeguards are in place when implementing these measures to ensure that they're not abused or overused?
ALAN TUDGE: So the ordinary safeguards which presently exist in the legislation will be maintained. All this legislation will do is expand the list of items for which the Australian Border Force is able to search for. That list, for example, will include drugs. The list will include mobile phones and then they'll have the discretion to be able remove those mobile phones when they find them. They presently don't have that ability.
QUESTION: Why do you think they didn't have this power before? Why wasn't this implemented initially?
ALAN TUDGE: Well I mean we tried to implement this going back a few years. We've put some amendments through, the Labor Party blocked it last time we tried to implement this. But you've got to bear in mind that the composition of the detainees has changed over time. When we first came to office, the vast majority of detainees were illegal maritime arrivals and those sorts of issues which I've been describing were not the dominant issues. Today, two-thirds of the detainees have criminal histories and so it's a much more significant issue in relation to drugs being in those facilities particularly, and also the type of persons that are there such as people who are child sex offenders, such as people who have got extremist ideologies and we don't want them sharing those extremist ideologies while they are in those detention facilities.
QUESTION: Just out of curiosity, how much access do detainees have to those computers and landlines? Is it once a day or is there a time limit on that?
ALAN TUDGE: I'd have to get back to you on that one.
QUESTION: Just on another matter. We're being contacted by a series of temporary visa holders who were caught out by the travel ban and are now overseas but previously before the pandemic took hold had their lives based in Australia. Despite their attempts to get exemptions to come back to, return to Australia, they've been not able to. Is there any plan in place in terms of opening travel back to the country for temporary visa holders in this position?
ALAN TUDGE: I mean as you point out, the Australian Border Force Commissioner has the power to grant exemptions at present and so if they're particular circumstances where for compassionate reasons they need to be in the country, then the Australian Border Force Commissioner is able to bring them into the country. But as a rule, we've closed our borders to everybody other than Australians who are returning and permanent residents who are returning and that, to be honest, has been one of the most important thing – if not the most important thing that we've done in terms of getting control of his pandemic. That's been our focus, that is the maintenance of our focus. Our focus remains on that - keeping our borders secure - because two-thirds of all of the cases in Australia had emanated from people coming into Australia whether it be foreigners or Australians returning.
QUESTION: There has been flagged forward changes in the future, for example, for international students though in stage three. Are there any considerations under way for other visa holders to be given similar exemptions in the future?
ALAN TUDGE: Right now, our focus is on keeping those borders strong, keeping them secure and giving the Australian Border Force Commissioner those powers to grant exemptions in exceptional circumstances. It will be some time away before we're going to see immigration back to anything like normal. I mean you would have heard the forecasts of what next year is going to be like where Treasury estimates there'll be an 85 per cent reduction in immigration next year. Now, immigration is comprised of temporary migration and permanent migration. That'll be 85 per cent reduced next year. It's almost impossible to say what will be like the year after at this stage. If a vaccine is found, it will change the equation. But at this stage, keeping our border secure is a very, very strong priority of the Government.
QUESTION: Just back on Tom's question, I think the examples that he's talking about - it's people who have been together for several years but aren't married. There was one example where the lady who was stuck over in Brazil is pregnant and can't get back to her partner in Australia. Do you think, both of those have been rejected, do you think that it's fair that they're potentially going to be spending months and months apart and you know, potentially giving birth without their partner who's stuck in Australia?
ALAN TUDGE: It's very difficult to comment on individual cases because I don't know what type of visa they're on, I don't know the nationality of her partner. I don't know the nationalities [indistinct]… I don't know the nationality of the individual, I don't know the nationality of her partner and what type of visa they’re on. [indistinct]…. I would certainly encourage her to call, or encourage each individual to call the Immigration Department, talk it through with them and if they believe that they're worthy of an exemption to apply for an exemption.
QUESTION: [Inaudible question]
ALAN TUDGE: The Australian Border Force under this legislation would have the discretion to use their powers. I've got to go to a division. Thank you.