Topics: Strengthening the character test
DAVID COLEMAN: Good afternoon. In the next 48 hours the Strengthening the Character Test Bill will come before the House of Representatives and it's very important legislation. It's very important that it is supported, importantly, by the Opposition as well as the Government.
The legislation is about protecting Australians from non-citizens who commit serious crimes. It will make it easier to deport non-citizens who commit serious crimes against Australians. So in pursuing this legislation the Government is keeping Australians safe and protecting Australians from non-citizens who commit serious crimes.
Now there are four categories of crime that are affected by this legislation and they're all very serious offences. The people who are affected are non-citizens who have committed violent offences; non-citizens who have committed sexual offences; non-citizens who have committed firearms offences; or non-citizens who have breached personal protection orders, such as AVOs. All very serious matters.
The only people who are affected by this law are non-citizens who have committed serious crimes.
Remarkably the Labor Party is saying that they do not support this legislation, and that is just extraordinary. The Labor Party is saying that if a non-citizen commits a serious crime against an Australian - if it was three months ago, the law shouldn't apply to them. Now we believe if a non-citizen commits a serious crime, a violent offence, a sexual offence, a breach of an AVO against an Australian, then of course this law should apply to them, if it was committed some time ago.
The Labor Party is also saying that effectively this law should only apply to people who have been sentenced to 12 months or more. But that's how the law works now. The whole point of this law is to have a clear, objective way of cancelling the visas of non-citizens who have committed serious crimes, even if they are sentenced to less than 12 months imprisonment. Australians would support that. It is common sense. It is about protecting Australians.
And finally, the Labor Party effectively says that the law shouldn't apply to New Zealanders or that there should be a special accommodation in relation to New Zealanders. But this law doesn't discriminate based on the country of origin of the person who commits the crime. It applies equally, as it should. If someone from New Zealand commits a serious crime against an Australian they should be treated the same way as someone from the United States or Canada or France or anywhere in the world for that matter. What matters is not the origin of the person committing the crime but the fact that they have committed and been convicted of a serious offence in Australia.
Non-citizens are guests in our country - we are a welcoming nation. We welcome people from all over the world, but if you commit a serious crime in Australia, you are not welcome in Australia. This law makes that very clear and it is absolutely appalling that the Labor Party isn't supporting it and they need to change that position.
JOURNALIST: What if someone’s lived here for decades?
DAVID COLEMAN: If someone's not a citizen of Australia and they commit a crime against Australians, why should they be allowed to stay in Australia? If a non-citizen has sexually assaulted an Australian or has violently assaulted an Australian or has breached an AVO against an Australian or has a firearms offence committed in Australia, why on Earth would we want that person to stay in Australia? We wouldn't. This law provides a clear, objective power for the Department to cancel that person's visa. It will lead to an increase in cancellations and I note that some of the critics of this bill say that it's a bad thing that it will lead to an increase in visa cancellations. Yes it will. That is the design - it is meant to lead to an increase, because if people had been convicted of serious crimes they shouldn't be in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Kristina Keneally gives the example of someone who is convicted of assault for grasping a person by the sleeve, who may have received no sentence. Is a person like that going to be captured by this bill, and why would you want them deported?
DAVID COLEMAN: If a person has been convicted of a violent offence, a sexual offence, a firearms offence, or the breach of an AVO, of course there should be an objective ability in the legislation to get that person out of Australia. That's what this legislation does. It's common sense. It's standing up for Australians.
We welcome people from all around the world - in fact we issue eight million visas a year to people from all around the world. But if people are going to come to Australia and commit serious crimes, it is self-evident that there should be a clear, objective power to cancel their visas. It's incredible that Kristina Keneally is leading Labor down this path of not supporting this legislation.
JOURNALIST: Is grabbing someone’s sleeve a violent offence?
DAVID COLEMAN: If someone has been convicted of the offences within the legislation, which includes violent offences such as assault; includes sexual offences; it includes firearms offences; it includes breaches of AVOs, then that person will objectively fail the character test which creates the ability for the Department to cancel their visa.
This person will have been convicted, by an Australian court, of conduct in Australia which is completely inconsistent with the pact that effectively we have with people who are non-citizens in our country which is “you’re welcome in our country, but if you're going to commit a serious crime then no, you're not welcome and your visa should be cancelled”.
JOURNALIST: So Minister the New Zealand Government has got strong concerns about the bill that said “please don't pass it”. We do want good relations with New Zealand. Is this bill more important than good relations with New Zealand?
DAVID COLEMAN: A fundamental principle of our laws is that they apply equally regardless of the country of origin of the person who commits the crime. So if someone is from Spain, or from New Zealand, or from Argentina, or wherever, and they commit a serious offence, clearly they should be treated equally. The important point here is, the only people affected by this law are non-citizens who have committed serious offences in Australia. So if people don't want to be affected by the law there's a very simple solution - don't commit a violent offence in Australia, don't commit a sexual offence in Australia, don't commit a firearms offence in Australia, don't breach an AVO in Australia, and you're not affected by the law. Of course the law should apply equally.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the New Zealand Government says this is corrosive because it does apply to more Kiwis than anyone else, and that part of the reason is that Kiwis are treated differently in how they can access citizenship. They don't have some of the rights that many people do. Your own committee on migration, chaired by Jason Wood, recommended changes to ministerial discretion to look at the Kiwi issue, is there any room to move on that at all?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well look, our Migration Act and the character provisions in the Migration Act apply equally to people regardless of where they're from. If you take it back to common sense and you say, “if someone commits an offence, what matters is the offence not the origin of the person”.
It would not be appropriate for us to say we're going to have a different standard for people who commit an offence from New Zealand, or from any other country, because what matters is the offence. As I said before, the only people who are affected by this law are people who have committed serious crimes. So if people don't want to be affected by the law, don't commit a serious crime and you have nothing to worry about.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible]…people say that tens of thousands of people could be effected by this. How are you going to have the resources to go through and assess… [inaudible]
DAVID COLEMAN: Well look, we have significantly increased the number of visa cancellations in recent years. So in our six years of government about 4700 people have had their visas cancelled on character grounds, which is about seven times as many as Labor cancelled in a comparable six year period. So it's correct, we have cancelled more visas on character grounds, we have taken a much stronger approach on character cancellations. This bill will further increase the scope for character visa cancellations and it will lead to more people being captured in that system. But that's entirely appropriate because our government believes strongly that if someone's been convicted of a serious offence - and they were convicted for maybe nine, or 10 months, or six months - of a serious offence, a violent offence, sexual offence, breach of AVO, firearms offences, to us it is self-evident that that person has breached faith with Australia and that they have forgone the privilege that it is to be in Australia and that their visa should have an objective basis for cancellation and that's what this law provides.
JOURNALIST: Does your appeal to Labor reflect the fact you don't have crossbench support? Does the appeal to Labor reflect the fact that the crossbench won't pass it?
DAVID COLEMAN: The appeal to Labor – and I don’t know that you’d call it an appeal - but the statement to Labor is, “is Labor seriously going to vote against a law that protects Australians from violent non-citizens?” That is the proposition. So the Labor Party is contemplating, and all of their members in the House of Representatives, walking into the House of Representatives chamber and voting against a law that says if a non-citizen has been convicted of a violent offence, of a sexual offence, of a firearms offence or breach of an AVO, Labor is saying they're going to come into the House and say, “that's a bad idea and that should not be reflected in the law of Australia”.
I think that's an extraordinary proposition. It is common sense that they should support it. It's notable that every time Labor takes a position on one of these issues, never, ever is it to strengthen the provision, always it is to weaken it.