Tougher character test 'could lead to unfair deportations'


Labor will oppose legislation it says will lead to migrants being unfairly deported.

Labor says proposed legislation to tighten the character test could lead to someone who has lived in Australia for decades being kicked out for "grasping someone by the sleeve". 

Labor will oppose the government's latest move to crack down on foreign criminals, after a raft of migration and law experts criticised the legislation as unnecessary and poorly targeted. 

Under the proposed laws, set to be debated in Parliament this week, anyone who commits a crime that carries a sentence of at least two years would fail the character test and face deportation -  even if they're not sentenced to any jail time.

Non-citizens who are sentenced to at least 12 months jail face mandatory deportation, under existing legislation.

While the government says its targeting non-citizens who commit violent or sex offenders, Labor's home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally said low-level offences would also be captured, "such as assault for grasping a person by the sleeve". 

Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration Kristina Keneally speaks to the media in Adelaide, Friday, September 6, 2019. Senator Keneally is discussing the Tamil family from Biloela. (AAP Image/David Mariuz) NO ARCHIVING
Labor's Kristina Keneally says the laws will capture people convicted of low-level offences.

She argued changes made to strengthen the character test in 2014 gave the government broad powers to cancel the visas of dangerous individuals.

"In fact, these extremely broad discretionary powers mean foreigners do not even need to spend a day in jail or even be convicted of a crime to have their visa cancelled," Ms Keneally said. 

Since 2014, about 4,700 foreign criminals have been kicked out of the country - seven times as many as the previous six years. 

But Immigration Minister David Coleman said lowering the threshold would give the government "clear, objective powers", allowing the government to deport even more foreign criminals. 

"The legislation is about protecting Australians from non-citizens who commit serious crimes," he told reporters on Tuesday.  

Labor seeks special consideration for Kiwis

Labor has written to Mr Coleman seeking three changes in return for its support of the bill, including limiting the impact to those who commit crimes in the future. 

The government plans to apply the laws retrospectively, meaning that someone who has lived in Australia for decades and committed a crime covered by the legislation could be deported no matter how long ago the crime happened. 

Minister for Immigration David Coleman at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, September 17, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Immigration Minister David Coleman will bring on legislation to strengthen the character test this week.

Labor is also seeking special consideration be given to the impact on New Zealanders, who are set to be disproportionately affected as they are the largest group of non-citizens in Australia. 

Kiwis have limited access to citizenship but are allowed to stay in Australia indefinitely. 

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly raised the issue which she says is having a "corrosive" effect on the two countries' relationship. 

Mr Coleman has rejected all of Labor's requests. 

"If someone is from Spain, or New Zealand or Argentina and they commit a serious offence then clearly they should be treated equally," he said.

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