The Coalition is being warned that a renewed push to tighten the character test for visa holders could see a fivefold increase in the number of people facing deportation, with residents from New Zealand and humanitarian refugees disproportionately affected.
The Morrison government has reintroduced a bill to change the Migration Actto provide grounds for visa cancellation or refusal where a non-citizen has been convicted of a serious crime punishable by two years imprisonment, even if a jail term is not imposed.
A submission from migration experts to the Senate committee examining the change warns the retrospective law could be the “largest expansion of the character test provisions in the Migration Act in history” and may result in the number of people who fail the character test automatically expanded “by a factor of five”.
“While difficult to compare, this may be one of the most significant retrospective applications of new legislation in recent parliamentary history, particularly for a bill with negative consequences for people,” the joint submission says.
“Given the retrospective application … there will likely be a step-change in the number and rate of visa cancellations and deportations from Australia.”
The signatories to the submission include immigration researcher and former Labor adviser Henry Sherrell, the former deputy secretary of the department of immigration Abul Rizvi, and academics Shanthi Robertson and Laurie Berg.
The fivefold increase has been calculated using figures from the Judicial Commission of NSW on the assumption that visa holders have a similar criminal profile to that of the general population.
Since changes to the character test were made by the Abbott government in December 2014, when Scott Morrison was immigration minister, the Coalition has cancelled a total of 4,150 visas, most of these being New Zealand citizens.
Between 2016 and 2018 Australia forcibly deported 1,023 people to New Zealand, sparking warnings from across the Tasman that the policy has had a “corrosive” effect on the bilateral relationship.
NZ prime minister Jacinda Adern has repeatedly expressed concern to the Australian government that NZ citizens who were long-term Australian residents – including those who had never stepped foot in her country – were captured by the visa crackdown.
She again raised the issue in talks with Scott Morrison last month, saying the deportation of criminals with almost no connection to New Zealand was not “fair dinkum”.
“We have seen cases where there is also almost no connection of an individual to New Zealand who have been deported,” Ardern said.
“I consider that to be a corrosive part of that policy. And it’s having a corrosive effect on our relationship.”
A previous attempt to change the character test was shelved by the Coalition in the previous parliament after the legislation sat on the notice paper for 169 days and was not brought to a vote in the House of Representatives.
Labor has indicated it will oppose the changes, but is waiting for the final report from the Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, which reports back to parliament on the changes on 13 September.
“Along with the government, we await the report in September at the conclusion of the committee’s considerations,” Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, said.
Immigration minister David Coleman has said the tougher character test was an “important” measure that would send “a clear and unequivocal message” that an Australian visa was a privilege granted only to those of good character.
“Like the Australian community, the government has no tolerance for non-citizens who are found to have committed these serious crimes,” he said, when the bill was introduced last month.
“We make absolutely no apologies for protecting the Australian community from these harmful people, and we will act decisively whenever we are made aware of that.”