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Julian Hill MPFederal Member for Bruce

Julian Hill MP

People who are already safe here in Australia should be allowed to stay here and have their offshore visa granted. Instead of having to fly overseas and back again during the pandemic.

Sensible Visa Changes

House of Representatives - 15 February, 2021

In introducing this bill I have a sense of deja vu. We've been here before.

Indeed, I feel like the proverbial goldfish going around and around in the bowl.

'Here I am again. Oh, look, there's the minister out there making the same announcement for the third time.'But he doesn't actually make any of the changes he announces, so around we go and here we are.

This bill should not be necessary, as the minister should have fixed this problem with a stroke of a pen last year, by just amending the migration regulations. But he has failed to do so. So here we are again.

This bill is very simple: it's just common sense. All it does is allow people who are already safe here in Australia to stay here and have their offshore visa granted in Australia, instead of having to fly overseas and back again during the pandemic. Literally, that's it.

It will predominantly benefit untold thousands of partners of Australians or their parents, as they're the most common of these visa categories. But the bill would fix the same problem for more than 30 other visa types.

The minister's current regulations contain what could be called the FOFI rule—the fly-out and fly-in.

The rule requires applicants for visas who originally applied when they were offshore and who are already in Australia to leave Australia just so their visa can be granted.

Traditionally people took a quick trip to Bali or New Zealand and came back, and that was okay. But we're in the middle of a global pandemic! We don't want people taking risky trips overseas if they don't have to: transiting through international airports and hotels, then flying back to Australia to quarantine, risking the spread of more contagious forms of COVID-19.

The bill would also benefit a small number of Australians who are stuck or working overseas from being forced to fly in and fly out. I spoke a few weeks ago to a man who applied for his wife's partner visa two or three years ago when they were living in Australia. They've now relocated to Germany for work and they're due to come back to Australia in July next year, but the government has told them their visa is ready to be granted but they have to come back to Australia in the next few months—in a pandemic! If they don't come back, they'll have wasted the $8,000 fee and years waiting.

But on quarantine right now there are 40,000 Australians still stranded overseas, desperate to come home.

The Prime Minister just keeps making announcements. He promised they'd be home by Christmas, but it's all spin. The queue just keeps getting longer.

Let's be very clear why. It's because the Prime Minister has refused to take responsibility for anything difficult.

Under the Constitution, quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility, yet for nearly a year the Prime Minister has just ducked and weaved, blaming the states for the lack of capacity or the issues we've seen across the country with hotel quarantine.

Nothing is ever the Prime Minister's responsibility! He's just a powerless and impotent little man—until there's credit to be snatched then he pops up on TV, wraps a few flags around him and pretends he's in charge of something.

It's bad enough that the Prime Minister has failed to act, but it's beyond ridiculous that the Morrison government has itself been caught wasting precious quarantine places by forcing people to make unnecessary trips overseas just so the computer will spit out their visa.

This has affected the partners, the parents and the children of Australian citizens and the employees of Australian businesses.

This bill will stop this madness.

I honestly have no idea why the minister hasn't just fixed this. I really don't.

The government's known about this problem for nearly a year.

I've written numerous letters. I've spoken to successive ministers. Australians have bombarded these ministers, crying out for common sense to prevail, but ministers have inexplicably failed to act.

They have however announced the same thing three times!

In November, the then minister made a panicked Saturday night announcement to try and shut down negative media criticism two days ahead of the last bill I introduced relating to partner visas.

Note that point: common sense or decency does not work with this Liberal government. They don't respond to real problems or ordinary people.

They're not a government, they're a marketing department masquerading as a government, so they only respond to negative media stories. Makes sense I suppose given they're led by a mini-Trump populist Prime Minister.

But after the minister's announcement in late November, nothing actually happened!

No detail, no timeline, no certainty. Just an announcement.

So thousands of Australian families were forced to spend thousands of dollars more on visa extensions and other fees over Christmas.

After the minister announced that he would make the change for partners of Australians, we were bombarded by the parents of Australians who had been offered a parent visa. They spoke up and they said, 'Hey, government, if you're going to change this stupid rule for partners, why not us?'

These are older people, more vulnerable to COVID who the government was sending threatening letters to saying, 'You need to fly out of Australia within 28 days then fly back again to have your $46,000 visa granted.'

The government's response to this was that 'parents are not family members'.

I thought it was a joke when a journalist told me that was the minister's response. Then I saw it in the newspaper and in countless letters to Australians:

'Parents are not immediate family members.'

And so in December I gave notice of this bill and the media campaign continued. I want to thank all the courageous people who spoke up and shared their story. I've been in touch personally with hundreds of Australians and I understand now the pain, the cost and the impact of the government's ongoing failure to act.

There was a moment of hope when the previous minister—the guy who presided over the robodebt fiasco, the guy who wasted $92 million on a failed visa and citizenship privatisation and did nothing about this mess—got promoted to be the education minister.

I mean good for him! It's terrible for schools, TAFEs and universities, but I thought: 'Well, he's gone. Maybe the next one will show some common sense.'

But no. The threatening letters kept coming, telling parents to leave and come back again.

The spin cycle repeated itself though because eventually, to shut down the negative media, the new minister made a second announcement in late January, that he would change the rule for partners and also for parents!

I mean if we're trying to be glass half full, we could ignore the fact he just announced the same thing a second time for partners, and focus on the fact that suddenly parents are family!

Despite the announcement, still no action from the marketing department.

But then two days ago, we got a third announcement, as the minister again panicked to shut down ongoing negative media ahead of this debate.

This time the minister announced some dates on which he 'intended' to make the changes. That's not a commitment to do so. It's just an intention.

So why, members may ask, would Australians keep campaigning and pushing for the change if the government keep saying they'll do it soon?

Why vote for this bill today?

It's because the ongoing delay and uncertainty is expensive and cruel.

People have no work rights until their visa is granted, meaning families are going broke with one partner (or sometimes parent) unable to work.

People can't buy property, they can't buy a family home, they can't sign a contract, they can't sign a mortgage and they miss out on the home grants.

People keep forking out thousands of dollars, hand over fist, for visa fees, health and character checks, flight cancellations and changes, and international student fees, in some cases, for their kids—tens of thousands of dollars because the minister can't find his pen and sign the bit of paper.

People don't trust this government to deliver—some people have gone and come back again, wasting tens of thousands of dollars on flights and quarantine places. I've heard from families about the anxiety and fear that the uncertainty is causing, especially for elderly parents. It might sound silly in here, but people have these letters. They believe what the government says—that they have to leave—and they're scared of dying from COVID when they're forced to go overseas.

The final thing I'll say is that this bill fixes the whole problem, not just part of the problem.

The government has only said it will fix this rule for partners and parents.

Not the more than 30 other visa categories that would still be forced to make unnecessary overseas trips during the pandemic.

A most egregious example is an emergency doctor I spoke with who has been working in a major Melbourne hospital for more than two years. The government has finally advised him and his wife that their 461 permanent resident visas are ready to be granted—but he and his wife, a busy engineer, have to fly overseas and back again to get them. The government's changes won't affect that visa.

As a doctor he told me he knows just how dangerous COVID is. Why would the government force anyone to fly overseas and back again?

So he went to his local MP, the member for Higgins, who's sitting over there—she is herself a doctor—but she failed to act or speak up for him. She might have been too busy on Sky News or something. It was unbelievable.

So even if the government eventually does what they've announced, it will still not fix the problem.

The principle underlying this bill is that no person should be forced to make an unnecessary, expensive and risky overseas trip during a pandemic just to have their visa granted. The proposition is that the minister should have the power to grant any visa onshore or offshore during the pandemic.

It's common sense.

Of course even if this bill passes it's of no comfort to numerous Australians who have blown their savings making that risky trip. One couple reported in the media spent $67,000 on airfares, delays and quarantine overseas and in Australia just to get their visa granted; they were already safe here.

And there remains a much, much bigger mess in the partner visa program. Tens of thousands of couples remain separated, not because of the pandemic, but because of the government's cruel, illegal mismanagement of the partner visa program over many years.

The budget announcements don't go nearly far enough and entrench effective discrimination. The plight of prospective marriage 300 visa holders is especially fraught and cruel. I will have more to say on this elsewhere.

I commend the bill to the House.