A Labor government will make use of Australia’s existing laws to deport visa holders who are convicted of crimes, but is expected to tweak the rules to ease strain on the relationship with New Zealand.
Labor has been ambiguous about whether it would reintroduce a stalled Coalition bill to “strengthen” the character test – legislation that the opposition had regarded as a political wedge by the Morrison government.
Labor supported the bill in the lower house in February and had been planning to move several amendments in the Senate, but that legislation never made it to a vote in the upper house before the election was called.
Guardian Australia understands a Labor government would continue deportations under section 501 of the Migration Act as currently in force, but would be likely to adjust the ministerial direction to ensure decisions better take into account the time a person has been in Australia.
The proposal would aim to address the disproportionate impact of the policy on citizens from New Zealand, which has long argued it is “corrosive” to the relationship to deport people who have lived most of their lives in Australia.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said in February the country was “concerned that Australia continues to send people to New Zealand who have never lived here and have no family or support networks at all”.
The potential changes to the ministerial direction envisaged by the Labor party would not require legislation to go through parliament.
Labor is supportive of a recommendation by the Liberal-chaired joint standing committee on migration in 2019 that the historic special immigration status of New Zealand citizens be considered as a factor in visa cancellations.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, confirmed on Thursday that he would use the existing laws – but hinted that he would also seek to improve the trans-Tasman relationship.
“Section 501 applies for breaches of people who are on visas, and if people commit serious offences then action should be taken in Australia’s national interests,” Albanese told reporters in the Sydney seat of Bennelong.
“Jacinda Ardern is someone who I’ve met with here in Australia and also in Wellington and in Auckland. I think she is an outstanding prime minister and I’m sure that we would have a very warm and cordial relationship.”
The long-simmering row between close partners Australia and New Zealand stems from the use of section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act, which allows the cancellation of visas on character grounds, and which is most likely to be used against New Zealand nationals.
The number of cancellations under the policy has increased nearly tenfold in under a decade, largely as a result of the Australian government tightening the law to say the minister must revoke the visa if a person has been sentenced to 12 months or more in prison.
In 2020-21, 946 visas were cancelled under section 501, most commonly for drug offences. New Zealand was the most common nationality for character cancellations over the last 12 months, followed by the UK.
The issue has not figured heavily during the election campaign, although the Coalition has promised to “take a hardline stance against non-citizen criminals by cancelling or refusing the visas of those who commit serious crimes, and strengthening the grounds for doing so”.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, continued to face questions on Thursday about his approach to foreign policy challenges, including the fallout from the new security deal between China and Solomon Islands.
The winner of Saturday’s election is expected to travel to Tokyo early next week for a Quad summit of the leaders of Australia, Japan, the US and India.
Morrison said he would like to visit Pacific island countries including Solomon Islands soon. “It would be my intention, not only to visit there, but many of the other Pacific countries that I had hoped to visit during the last three years which Covid prevented me from visiting,” Morrison said in the Tasmanian seat of Lyons.
He also nominated Vietnam as a country he would like to visit in the near future if re-elected.
At a later media conference in the NSW seat of Werriwa, Morrison blocked a reporter’s question to his immigration minister, Alex Hawke, about whether he would exercise his powers to allow the Murugappan family to return to the Queensland town of Biloela.
Morrison answered the question for Hawke, replying that the matter was yet to be determined by the courts.
“There has been no finding of protection for that family,” the prime minister said. “They have not been found to be refugees.”
Labor has pledged to allow the family to return to Biloela if it wins the election. The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, has also expressed his support for the family.