The Federal Opposition has accused the Immigration Minister of seeking “Trump-like powers” to review the visas of certain people based on their nationality, race or religion.
The Government wants to introduce a process to “revalidate” the health, character, employment and contact information for some long-term visa holders, as part of its plan to trial a 10-year visa for Chinese nationals.
If “adverse information” is found about a recipient during that check they could lose the visa.
Labor said while it supported the idea of revalidation for the long-term visa, it was now worried the proposed powers could go much further, with one MP warning it could represent a slide into fascism.
“Ultimately Labor cannot give Trump-like powers to a minister who has such a high desire to see a divided Australia,” Shadow Minister Shayne Neumann told Parliament.
“Labor won’t support a bill that could see whole groups of people targeted on the basis of their place of birth, passport or religion.”
Mr Dutton rubbished Labor’s argument as “outrageous”.
“A Labor Senate inquiry investigated this bill, it made no recommendation other than to pass the bill,” Mr Dutton said.
“This is outrageous. I mean I’ve seen some mendacious acts in my 15 years in Parliament. This would be one of the most mendacious acts by a shadow minister.”
Mr Neumann said Labor was in favour of the pilot program to grant Chinese nationals the 10-year visitor visa, which is designed to help boost tourism and develop Northern Australia.
But he said as the bill was currently written, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton could order a similar revalidation check on visa holders from any “class of persons” if he thought it was in the public interest.
“The public interest test is undefined, open to broad interpretation and could be abused to pursue a political agenda in the guise of public interest,” Mr Neumann said.
The explanatory memorandum to the bill said the public interest power would only be used in rare circumstances, but Labor is particularly worried such a check could not be disallowed or overturned by Parliament.
“This particular minister cannot be trusted with wide ranging, unfettered powers over visas of whole groups of people.”
Powers authoritarian leaders ‘would salivate for’
The Opposition did not issue a dissenting report when the bill was approved by a Senate committee late last year, but in the context of the United States Government’s proposed travel bans on migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries it has clearly hardened its view.
That means the Government will need the support of the Senate crossbench to pass the bill once it reaches the upper house.
Another Labor MP, Julian Hill, used his speech to describe the proposed powers as “unwarranted and sneaky”, and not appropriate for any immigration minister.
“They’re the kind of powers that authoritarian leaders worldwide would salivate for,” he said.
Mr Hill said Australia’s democracy was based on the understanding that it includes protection for groups and individuals from government overreach.
“If we let that slide then we drift very quickly from populism, to authoritarianism and fascism,” he said.
“It may sound extreme, but we forget these lessons of history at our peril.”
Labor MP and counter-terrorism and radicalisation expert Anne Aly told Parliament that while it was sensible to have a system to update information on recipients of the 10-year visas, the bill lacked detail and went beyond the prudent checks that were necessary to keep Australians safe.
“In the face of growing discontent around the world and populist politics that exploit grievances and directs these grievances at entire groups of people, in the face of immigration bans and the exclusion of groups based on race or on ethnicity, sadly we have to be ever more vigilant of our long standing bipartisan commitment to our immigration program that does not discriminate,” she said.
The ABC sought a response from Mr Dutton but has not received a reply.