Kristina Keneally has warned the government against playing “wedge politics with women and children’s lives” after pressure from the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, to pass the Coalition’s visa cancellation bill.
Hawke will use the October and November sittings of parliament to push for a vote on the controversial Strengthening Character Test bill, which lowers the bar for cancellation of visas after conviction of offences such as breaching an apprehended violence order.
Labor opposes the legislation on the basis the minister already has broad powers to cancel visas on character grounds, but the Hawke push will put pressure on the opposition and crossbench in the Senate, where the bill has been stalled since 2019.
In correspondence to senator Keneally on 6 October, seen by Guardian Australia, Hawke argued the bill would help women and children by deporting domestic violence perpetrators and allowing for “proactive deportation of criminals” before they had “the opportunity to commit serious offences”.
Hawke warned it would be “divisive” if Labor continued to “stand in the way of deporting non-citizens” and asked for its “rationale for opposing this legislation with a view to finding a way to support this important reform”.
Keneally, Labor’s deputy Senate leader, details the exchange in a speech to the Migration Institute about the future direction of the migration program after Covid-19, to be delivered on Friday.
In excerpts of the speech, Keneally notes that the “supposedly urgent” piece of legislation has been on the notice paper in parliament for 1,087 days.
“The bill has also been through two Senate inquiries – and neither inquiry could identify what this bill enables the minister to do to cancel a visa on character grounds that the minister is not currently able to do under the Migration Act,” she says.
“I am more than a bit concerned that the minister fails to understand that the Migration Act already gives him the power to expel temporary visa holders who perpetrate family and domestic violence.”
Keneally argues the Morrison government has “left behind” victims of domestic violence on temporary visas and calls for more direct measures to protect that cohort.
“If minister Hawke is genuine – and not just playing a game of wedge politics with women and children’s lives – then we can work together on a terrific bipartisan approach to helping survivors of domestic and family violence to recover and live safe lives.”
On Tuesday Keneally wrote back reiterating Labor’s proposed amendments to win support for the bill. These are: to remove retrospectivity; to reduce the risk that low-level offending will trigger a cancellation; and to give extra consideration to the length of time New Zealanders have spent in Australia before ordering their deportation.
Keneally acknowledged that the bill does lower the bar for visa cancellation by allowing the minister to cancel the visa “if the person is convicted of an offence that carries a term of two years or more, regardless of whether the person was sentenced to a term of that duration”.
She argued this could only be used in circumstances where “they have been convicted of a ‘designated offence’ but the conduct is so trivial that it could not reasonably support a suspicion that the person is not of good character”.
In addition to Labor and the Greens, the bill was opposed in 2019 by Centre Alliance. Senator Jacqui Lambie, likely to be the swing vote, has also expressed concerns.
Australia’s policy of deporting people on temporary visas with criminal convictions has been criticised for separating families in circumstances where some people have little or no connection to their country of citizenship.
It has been a longstanding sticking point in the relationship with New Zealand, including public criticism of the policy by the highest levels of its government.
Experts have warned the bill could lead to a fivefold increase in the number of people facing deportation, with residents from New Zealand and humanitarian refugees disproportionately affected.
In his letter, Hawke boasted that visa cancellation legislation, passed in 2014 with Labor support, had resulted in “thousands of foreign criminals” being deported.
On Thursday Guardian Australia revealed the Morrison government is seeking to overturn a high court decision that prevents Aboriginal Australians who lack Australian citizenship from being deported.