Spending millions out of character

THE Morrison government’s increasing use of “character” tests to cancel visas is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The cancellations have led to the Department of Home Affairs’ legal budget ballooning out by 20 per cent to $111 million in the 2018-19 financial year, with the bulk going to external legal practices.

Home Affairs’ money is a big source of income for private legal firms and the increasing pattern of spending on immigration matters makes it a stable source of income.

In 2017-2018 total Commonwealth legal expenditure only rose 3.8 per cent but external expenditure rose 13.2 per cent.  A comparison for the 2018-2019 financial year is not available as a spokeswoman for attorney general Christian Porter said the current COVID-19 crisis had delayed the latest report.


Home affairs minister Peter Dutton can refuse or cancel a visa if a person fails the character test under s.501 of the Migration Act and he has done this with increasing regulatory since 2014.

In limited circumstances the decisions can reviewed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and published tribunal decisions show they have a heavy immigration case load. 

The test is wide-ranging and can be failed for criminal convictions carrying a 12-month prison term and includes suspended sentences.  Offences against women or children are also included.

Refugees seeking asylum and migrants who have grown up in Australia and have a long work history and strong family ties have had visas cancelled.

While Home Affairs’ pockets have been deep for lawyers, Perth-based The Humanitarian Group says those challenging decisions often have limited resources and are up against it in the courts.


THG senior supervising solicitor Katy Welch said they provided free legal advice to eligible clients and worked with the Visa Character Cancellation Group to prepare a submissions to a recent inquiry into amendments to the character test rules.

It found vulnerable people struggled to get legal assistance, were more likely to miss a deadline and lose a right, and their responses were likely to be of a lower quality.

It said cancelled visas could lead to detention, family separation, forcible removal, losing refugee protection or being sent back to a dangerous situation, which could have a dramatic impact on people’s lives and mental health.

The submission argued any changes resulting in more visa cancellations would cost the community through increased pressure on the courts and detention centres.

Home Affairs declined to comment.


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