Peter Dutton’s transfer to Defence Minister and appointment of Karen Andrews as the new Home Affairs Minister provides her with an extraordinary array of Dutton inspired problems she could readily fix.

The first and perhaps simplest would be for her to have a quick chat with junior Minister Hawke to intervene and grant visas to the Sri Lankan family of four Dutton kept in detention for over three years. Showing a bit of compassion to a mother and her two toddler daughters would both save taxpayer money and return this family to the Biloela community that has fought so hard to get them back.

As Andrews would quickly realise (even if Secretary Pezzullo tells her otherwise), that would not re-start the boats while Australia has turnback policy in place. It would, however, show that the new Minister was listening to Australian women in particular. Andrews is surely able to understand that no Australian woman would want to see toddlers kept in detention.

Although it would be pointless cruelty, if Andrews insisted she does not want to appear a soft touch, she could grant the Sri Lankan family the same bridging visas that Dutton gave to the Medivac Refugees that were recently released from detention using the same argument Dutton used.

Next on her agenda should be to contact the relevant NZ Government Minister to agree to its offer to re-settle the refugees on Manus and Nauru.

Dutton’s argument that talking up the NZ offer would open a backdoor to Australia was patent nonsense. Why would refugees re-settled in NZ where they would have access to a range of support services want to come to Australia where they would have very little support. When Howard and Ruddock re-settled some of the Tampa refugees in NZ, very few of them ever came to Australia.

Resettling these refugees would enable Australia to finalise its ‘arrangements’ in PNG and Nauru saving many hundreds of millions of dollars per annum. Andrews could quickly find out the precise amount saved as that would be in her new portfolio’s forward estimates – money that could be directed to doing something useful.

The in-coming ministers brief Andrews will by now have received would make it clear that the Humanitarian Program in 2020-21 and possibly 2021-22 cannot be delivered due to Covid-19. That provides as ideal opportunity to provide a more sensible pathway to permanent residence for the large number of people currently in Australia on Temporary Protection visas. There is zero chance these people will ever be returned. Keeping them on Temporary Protection visas had nothing to do with good policy but was just a silly, pointless and cruel political game Dutton played for years.

Andrews could also initiate a process for the Medivac refugees to be provided with a sensible pathway to permanent residence, including by encouraging more of them to settle in regional areas facing serious labour shortages.

Finally, Andrews will have received briefing on the largest ever labour trafficking scam in Australia’s history although Pezzullo will be too embarrassed to describe it that way. Andrews is not to blame for allowing this scam and hence can come to the issue fresh.

This scam has involved various offshore and onshore agents, as well as labour hire firms, bringing in tens of thousands of people, mainly from Malaysia and China, to Australia on visitor visas and then assisting them to apply for asylum. Unlike past waves of asylum seekers to Australia, the vast bulk of these applications are being refused. Australia has never before experienced this.

While their applications are being considered, including at the AAT, asylum seekers have work rights. Most would be forced by agents and labour hire companies to work on farms around Australia or in restaurants or brothels. Once refused at the AAT, most would no longer have work rights. According to DHA data, there are currently around 25,000 such refused asylum seekers in Australia. Many tens of thousands more are still being processed but most will eventually join those who have been refused.

This scam is likely to have so far cost the taxpayer many tens of millions of dollars in application processing. The cost of locating, detaining and removing unsuccessful asylum seekers would quickly run into the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars if any government was prepared to fund that – which it won’t.

Home Affairs has largely given up doing anything about the refused asylum seekers. It has cut right back on compliance action against employers using unsuccessful asylum seekers for cheap labour. But the farm lobby is concerned that farmers are now in breach of the law. Hence the farm lobby and the National Party are calling for an amnesty, not because they are concerned about the welfare of the workers but because so many farmers breaking the law is not a good look.

It is time a minister asked Pezzullo some hard questions about this scam rather than letting him sweep the issue under the carpet.

For example, Andrews could ask Pezzullo:

How could such a massive scam have been allowed to develop? Why didn’t Pezzullo act when he was first alerted to the scam?
What has it cost the taxpayer to process the applications so far and what are the estimated costs of processing the remaining applications at the primary and review stages (note there is rightly no application fee for an asylum application)?
What is Home Affairs doing to locate, detain and remove unsuccessful asylum seekers?
If it is doing nothing, and opposes the proposed amnesty, what is the plan for addressing the situation given the numbers will increase significantly as processing is completed?
What has been done to investigate and prosecute the organisers?
What plans are in place to prevent a resurgence of the problem when international borders re-open?
Sadly, I fear Pezzullo will try to pull the wool over Andrews eyes on this one. Even of Andrews wanted to address the issue, the Morrison Government will never spend the money required.

No, Andrews too will soon learn to kick this can down the road.


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