1,200 days after it was first introduced, the Strengthening the Character Test Bill passed the House of Representatives last Wednesday, following Labor’s capitulation to the Liberal Party. The policy was always and is still unnecessary and flawed, yet it passed because the politics around it changed. The Morrison government revived the bill in a desperate attempt to distract the public from policy failings, deaths in aged care, lack of climate action and abuse against women, while Labor reversing the stance they held until the day before due to fear of being ‘wedged’.
The arguments in favour of this bill were always misleading, divisive and outright dog-whistling—political fraud at its most blatant. The character of migrants was assassinated, judges were accused of being ‘activists’ and our community was painted as one where murderers are freely walking around.
The bill was rejected by two Parliamentary Inquiries, opposed by numerous experts and blocked as recently as last October in the Senate, including by Labor, who still technically does not support it in its current form. However, this bill passed with Labor’s support, why? Because politics poisoned policy.
Strengthening the character test would see a person on a visa who commits an offence and serves a light sentence—such as community service or a fine—risk loss of visa, indefinite detention and forcible removal from Australia. If the maximum sentence for the offence in question is at least two years, this could lead them to being permanently separated from their family and potentially returned to a country where they face serious harm.
There are a few reasons why this bill is unnecessary. Firstly, there is currently no minimum standard for visa cancellation. Even someone without a conviction can have their visa cancelled. The Minister of Immigration Alex Hawke has personally cancelled people’s visas even in the absence of a criminal record. The Minister was never asked to provide a single example of a situation in which he wanted to cancel a visa but wasn’t able to—likely because the case does not exist.
Yet this law would broaden the scope of existing powers. Currently, Minister Hawke can cancel visas almost at will. Under this legislation, he could drastically expand cancellations. The Government’s own department predicts it will lead to a fivefold increase in visa cancellations. If previous legislation was a fishing rod, this would be a fishing trawler.
It’s remarkable that the minister is arguing for more powers when a quick check would show that thousands have already been cancelled. Since 2014, over 6,500 people have had their visas cancelled and over 2,600 people have had them refused, under sweeping powers in section 501 of the migration act. Many of these people are long-term residents of Australia with families and communities
Also, and more importantly, we already have a legal system. If someone commits an offence a judge determines the punishment and they serve their time. This is the rule of law. The bill introduces extra-judicial punishment specifically for people on visas that would see them not only serve a sentence but also be indefinitely detained outside of the judicial system.
When you consider how the new law would impact refugees who are fleeing countries where they are persecuted or victim-survivors experiencing family violence where visa applications may be subject to adverse outcomes if the perpetrator is deported, it is no surprise why it was so roundly rejected by legal experts.
However, none of this seemed to matter. Labor, who voted against this bill only months ago, capitulated in the face of a scare campaign, promising they will change it at a later date. Their policy did not matter. Parliament was not a place to debate ideas, to strengthen our democracy and laws, but one to resort to fear rhetoric, mislead the public and cynically cast votes with an eye to re-election.
It should not come as a surprise that the demonisation of migrants and refugees is again weaponised in the hope of winning votes. This trend started twenty-one years ago with the Tampa and, despite the ‘never again’ promises, we are seeing the same cut-and-paste border security and fear narrative play out again.
What has changed, however, is community sentiment.
Trust in politicians is at an all-time low, and overt stunts like the one the government pulled this week don’t have the power they once did. We can all see it for what it is—it’s like the boy who cried wolf. How many times has the government threatened that failure to certain events would lead to open borders, insecurity, the opening of mysterious ‘flood gates’. We saw this with the Tampa. We saw this with kids off Nauru. We saw this with Medevac. There is no evidence behind these scare campaigns—they are designed only to create division in a desperate attempt to win votes.
But they underestimate us. I trust the community to stand up and reject such transparent fear-mongering. We are a proud multicultural nation and won’t let fear or division lead us. We will join together and fight this bill in the Senate and on election day. For families. For migrants. For refugees.
Image by Crawford Jolly