In December last year, a report from the federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration unanimously recommended that “as a priority, the Australian Government introduce legislation to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs.”   That is, the law which raises a debt against people in immigration detention to cover the cost of their detention.  Legislation to implement this recommendation was introduced by the Immigration Minister on 17 June. After a few weeks on the Senate’s Notice Paper, that chamber started debating the matter last night.

It is apt that the start of this debate coincided with publication of comments by Max Moore-Wilton, the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that he was told prior to the 2001 election that the infamous ‘children overboard’ allegation against a boatload of refugees was false, and that he passed on that information to the Prime Minister. After a lot of double and triple checking, Mr Moore-Wilton eventually said his “recollection was not sound”.

But it barely matters which version of Mr Moore-Wilton’s recollection people accept. It has long been obvious that key leaders in the Howard government willingly smeared these refugees for political gain, and the only reason they might not have been formally told the allegations were wrong was because it was quite clear this was something they didn’t want to be told. To this day, Mr Howard has never apologised for his slandering of the refugees, including his comment that “we don’t want people like that in this country”. He has still barely acknowledged that the children overboard claims were baseless.

The Senate debate provides a reminder of the previous federal government’s practice of (mis)using asylum seekers for political gain, with some of the familiar distortions about so-called “illegal entrants”, “jumping the queue”, “illegal immigrants” and the like being trotted out again by Coalition Senators. Still, debates on immigration – and on asylum seekers and refugees in particular – are not renowned for clarity of language and perspective. I have never seen any serious explanation of why asylum seekers arriving in boats should be treated as a matter of national security. Even linking it with a term like border protection is over-stating things, seeing these are people that want to be found, rather than being people trying to sneak themselves or illegal products into the country. Of the millions of people who enter Australia each year, there is no other group who are more thoroughly assessed for health, security, character and general customs and quarantine purposes.

Debate on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill will continue today. Senator Xenophon has stated he supports the Bill, as do Labor and the Greens. The Coalition Senators will oppose it – assuming none of them support the original recommendation of their Coalition colleagues on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration and cross the floor.

Which leaves the fate of the Bill with Senator Fielding. I had the understanding that he would also be supporting it, but his contribution to the Senate debate yesterday has left me unsure quite what he thinks about the whole issue, let alone the Bill. The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, also seemed rather perplexed by Senator Fielding’s depiction of the issue, judging by the numerous injections he made. Presumably all will become clear later today when debate on the matter resumes and a final Senate vote is taken.

UPDATE: Debate concluded on the detention debt legislation at 1:20pm today. Senator Fielding moved an amendment, seeking to keep charging people for the cost of immigration detention except for those who are subsequently recognised as a refugee. This wasn’t supported by anyone. Fortunately, any risk of the Bill being defeated if Senator Fielding sided with the Coalition was removed when Liberal Senator Judith Troeth stated in the Senate that she was supporting the legislation. A division was called on the final vote on the legislation, meaning Senator Troeth crossed the floor to vote differently to her party colleagues.

The final vote was 34 in favour and 30 against, with Senator Fielding also voting for it.

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