Religious groups could have Australian visas cancelled under proposed powers for Dutton

Greens criticise new bill it says gives immigration minister ‘extreme vetting’ powers to cancel visas of people based on place of birth, passport or religion

Entire nationalities, ethnic groups, or people of religious or political affiliations could be forced to have their Australian visas “revalidated” – and possibly cancelled by the immigration minister – under new powers currently proposed before parliament.

The sweeping, unchallengeable powers have been condemned by migration experts, who unanimously told a Senate committee the powers were unjustified, too broad and could be used to target specific nationalities or groups lawfully living in Australia.

Passed through the House of Representatives on Thursday, the Migration Amendment (visa revalidation and other measures) bill is expected to face significant opposition in the Senate, where the vote is likely to be close.

The bill was introduced last year to create a revalidation measure for the pilot program of 10-year visas for Chinese visitors to Australia.

But the bill’s drafting has given the immigration minister far broader powers to impose a “revalidation” check on any visa at all.

The bill would give the minister, currently Peter Dutton, power to impose a revalidation check on visas for any “specified class of persons”, to be determined solely by the minister “in the public interest”.

The minister could refuse to revalidate a visa if the minister held “adverse information” relating to the person, or a connected group of people. What constitutes “adverse information” is not defined in the bill.

The minister can consider public health and safety, national security, Australia’s economic wellbeing or the circumstances in a person’s home country when making a revalidation decision.

The bill gives examples of a person being required to revalidate their visa because they:

  • Hold a particular passport
  • Live in a particular country
  • Live in a particular state or province within a country
  • May have travelled through a particular area at a particular time

However, there are no parameters guiding the minister’s determination of a specific class of person, and concerns have been raised that it could be broadly imposed on people of certain ethnicities, or religious or political affiliations.

When the bill went before a Senate committee last year, every submission – except for the department’s own – said the powers were unjustified and liable to exploitation.

The Migration Institute of Australia said the bill had the potential to give the minister “unfettered power” over who held a visa in Australia.

“At worst, the minister’s powers could be used to significantly skew this interpretation of the ‘public interest’... this could be extrapolated to discriminate against large numbers of long-term visa holders lawfully living in Australia.”

The Law Council of Australia said the bill was “neither necessary nor proportionate to its intended objective” and that it gave the minister a broad range of powers “with limited or no explanation as to their intended purpose” and without parliamentary oversight.

The Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales said refugees could be adversely affected by the proposed bill, and that it gave “excessive powers” to the minister without any definition of what the “public interest” should be.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection defended the proposed powers, saying the revalidation powers were drafted broadly in order to allow the minister to act in the national interest. Parliament would have oversight of the revalidation orders, the department said.

The Senate committee ultimately recommended the bill be passed.

Dutton told ABC’s AM radio program that Labor had no objection to the bill, including at the Senate committee, until the last 24 hours and labelled the opposition’s tactics a “mendacious” distraction.

“What we’ve said is during that period [of holding a visa] if somebody, for example, commits a criminal offence or they are put on a terrorist watchlist then we reserve the right to go back and have look at their details and stop them from coming to our country.”

Dutton said it was “rubbish” that there was no parliamentary oversight because the Senate could disallow the regulation.

Greens senator Nick McKim, who issued the only dissenting statement from the Senate committee report last year, told the Guardian the proposed ministerial powers were “an attack on multicultural Australia”.

“We would urge the parliament not to give Peter Dutton the ‘extreme vetting’ powers that he wants, that would give him the ability to target nationalities, ethnic or cultural groups.”

Labor has similarly vowed to oppose the bill. The party’s immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, told parliament: “Labor cannot give Trump-like powers to a man that has such a high desire to see a divided Australia.

“Labor won’t support a bill that could see whole groups of people targeting based on their place of birth, passport or religion. This minister cannot be trusted with wide-ranging, unfettered powers over the visas of whole groups of people.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives Thursday, but will face more opposition in the Senate, where the vote is expected to be extremely close.

If Labor and the Greens vote against the bill, the Coalition will require nine of 10 crossbenchers to vote in favour.


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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