Park Hyatt, Melbourne
It is a pleasure to join you for this event––I thank the Law Council of Australia for organising the Immigration Law Conference and inviting me to be here.
I also acknowledge:
- Pauline Wright, President Law Council of Australia
- Senator Keneally
- Fr Frank Brennon
- Kevin Hyland, Former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner
- William Alstergren, Honourable Chief Justice Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia
- Georgina Costello Chair of Law Council of Australia’s Migration Law Committee
- Distinguished Guests and Ladies and gentlemen.
Among my responsibilities as Assistant Minister is oversight of the migration advice industry and also at this present time Ministerial Interventions. I’ve come to the role with prior experience as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, through which I developed a deep appreciation for the industry and the important work you do.
We are a nation built on migration. Nearly 50 per cent of Australians were either born overseas or have a parent who was born abroad.
Immigration has been, and will continue to be, an essential contributor to Australia’s society, prosperity and economic growth.
And so it is a priority of the Australian Government to ensure the industry that supports immigration and our global competitiveness for skilled migrants and students is performing well. Registered providers of migration advice are integral to effectively delivering the Government’s economic objectives by facilitating legitimate and beneficial migration to Australia.
In fact, migration agents were involved in more than 220,000 visa applications between July and December last year.
Those applications were some of the most complex of the visa caseload.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of ensuring that we have a world-class migration advice industry in Australia.
The Australian Government, through the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA) in the Department of Home Affairs, regulates the migration advice industry in Australia.
As you would know, it is illegal to provide immigration assistance in Australia unless registered as a migration agent with OMARA. Only Registered Migration Agents––and exempt persons under the Migration Act––can lawfully provide immigration assistance within Australia.
Regulation of the industry provides a mechanism to ensure consumer protection through holding Registered Migration Agents to professional and ethical standards and ensuring they undergo continuing professional development.
In any industry there are people who do the wrong thing, and the migration advice industry is no different. And those accessing migration services are sometimes among the most vulnerable to exploitation.
OMARA receives and investigates complaints made against Registered Migration Agents.
In the first six months of this financial year, OMARA received 267 complaints. There were 59 code breaches identified, of which 27 resulted in sanctions. This included barring two former Registered Migration Agents from being registered, cancelling eight Registered Migration Agents and suspending four Registered Migration Agents.
One of my personal priorities as Assistant Minister is to crack down on unregistered operators in Australia and overseas.
The Government is using social media, community liaison officers and other platforms to promote the importance of choosing accredited legal practitioners and registered migration agents. You may have noticed already that on our 956 form we do not acknowledge the overseas non registered co-hort. My aim is to eliminate overseas non registered operators from lodging applications.
Unscrupulous, unregistered providers may seek to profit from exploiting their clients. Unwittingly using unregistered operators can prove to be a costly mistake.
Those who are found to be unlawfully providing migration advice in Australia face steep penalties, including up to 10 years imprisonment.
The Australian Government is committed to ensuring Australia’s migration advice industry is world class and we have implemented a number of changes to strengthen professional standards.
For example, on 1 July 2018 we introduced a stand-alone Capstone assessment to determine whether a candidate meets the Occupational Competency Standards for Registered Migration Agents.
The assessment, which is being delivered by the College of Law Limited, is designed to ensure new entrants to the industry meet a high standard of professionalism to be able to deliver migration services to their clients. I must mention here Peter Papadopoulas and congratulate him for his tremendous work with Capstone.
Pass rates have been consistently low across the 2018 and 2019 intakes. The Government makes no apologies for the low pass rates because we expect Registered Migration Agents to meet high standards of competency.
In addition, the Government is maintaining a sharp focus on ensuring the industry is respected and trusted, and that clients can have confidence in the advice and services they receive.
The Government has been working to revise the Code of Conduct for Registered Migration Agents. The Department of Home Affairs concluded extensive stakeholder consultations on a revised code of conduct at the end of last year and is progressing work on a revised version for consideration by the Government.
I would like to thank the Australian Law Council and other stakeholders who have contributed to this consultation process.
I would like to reassure legal practitioners in the migration advice industry that the Government is continuing to progress with legislation to remove lawyers from the OMARA.
I introduced the bills to deregulate the industry and to stop lawyers from having this issue of dual registration. The Regulation of Migration Agents Bill and the Migration Agents Registration Application Charge Amendment (Rates of Charge) we managed to get these Bills passed the House of Representatives on 12 February this year and were introduced in the Senate the next day and should pass in the next sitting period.
The Bills will change a number of arrangements for more than 2200 legal practitioners who provide immigration assistance in connection with legal practice.
The Bills will remove legal practitioners with unrestricted practising certificates from the regulatory scheme that governs migration agents. This important step reduces the administrative burden of dual regulation of lawyers who, as you know, are already subject to a strict professional regulatory regime.
Transitional arrangements will allow current and future legal practitioners with restricted practising certificates and migration agent qualifications to be registered as migration agents for an eligible period of two years, which can be extended to up to four years.
The Bills also allow the Migration Agents Registration Authority the power to refuse an application for registration when the applicant had been required, but fails, to respond to requests for further information.
Ladies and gentlemen, the changes to the migration advice industry I have described today are testimony to the Government’s commitment to ensuring people can trust the advice and services they receive from Registered Migration Agents. The industry must be professional, honest and principled. There is no place for unscrupulous providers or those whose activities bring the industry into disrepute.
But while regulation of the industry remains important, the Australian Government does not seek to impose unnecessary administrative burdens or red tape on practitioners.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Law Council of Australia for its ongoing input and engagement on a range of other portfolio related matters. I mention, in particular, penalties for firearms trafficking and I note the council’s opposition to mandatory minimum sentences and the reasoning behind it.
As I discussed with my firearm stakeholders recently, which included Myles Gillard from the Law Council of Australia, the Government’s current focus is on identifying the appropriate maximum penalties that should be put in place for firearms trafficking offences.
I am pleased that on the issue of illegal firearms and firearm trafficking, both gun safety advocates and the firearms community are committed to working with Government to reduce the harm caused by these illegal weapons.
I also note the Council’s interest in the Australian Border Force’s powers.
The modern border environment is dynamic, complex, and characterised by increasingly sophisticated organised criminal entities who exploit the border and circumvent migration, visa, trade and customs laws.
The Australian Border Force––ABF––is a critical part of Australia’s efforts to prevent, detect, deter and disrupt the exploitation of Australia’s migration and citizenship programs and the exploitation of migrant workers.
However, the ABF and the Home Affairs Portfolio are relatively new in the scheme of Australia’s federation and most of the ABF’s powers are products of a time when migration and customs enforcement were separate and singular in their focus.
Reflecting this, the ABF’s search and seizure powers are set out in multiple pieces of legislation and are specific and limited to specific crime types.
It is essential that ABF officers performing critical, front-line roles have clarity on the powers available to them and that those powers are fit for purpose in the current operating environment.
Finally, I would like to mention another key priority for the Government, which is the implementation of Australia’s landmark Modern Slavery Act.
Modern slavery crimes have a serious impact on our communities here in Australia. These crimes also impact workers in our global supply chains. The Government is focused on ensuring that there is no place for modern slavery here in Australia, or in the supply chains of our goods and services.
I acknowledge the work of the ABF in combatting modern slavery, including working with the Australian Federal Police to identify and prevent modern slavery in Australia.
Since January 2019, the Modern Slavery Business Engagement Unit in the ABF has responded to more than 240 direct requests for assistance from reporting entities, presented at more than 40 workshops and industry forums across Australia, and developed detailed guidance for reporting entities.
I am pleased that the Law Council has supported many of these initiatives and I look forward to continuing to work with you to implement the Act.
As Legal practitioners, you play a vital role in our immigration system and you are often in a position to identify potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. I encourage you to contribute to these consultations and share your views and experiences.
In addition, I would like to particularly like to acknowledge Kevin Hyland for his work on combatting modern slavery in the United Kingdom and for his leadership on the international stage. I thank you for addressing this conference.
And I thank the Law Council of Australia for inviting me here today.