‘How can we make their lives harder?’

CHURCH groups were canvassed about the government’s tough new asylum seeker policies, including whether banning asylum seekers living in the community from working would be sufficiently punitive to prevent others from making the journey to Australia, sources say.
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The discussions reportedly took place in recent weeks, creating an ethical dilemma for groups working to improve the lives of asylum seekers.

The groups were believed to be highly uncomfortable with being asked to advise the department on measures that would make the lives of asylum seekers more difficult.

The government on Wednesday revealed how its ”no advantage” policy would work for asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat after August 13, and who were not sent to Nauru or Manus Island.

With more than 7500 people arriving since August 13, and the detention network under great strain, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said thousands of people would be released into the community while their asylum claims were processed. But anyone who arrived after August 13 would be unable to work for as long as five years, and would be eligible only for 89 per cent of the lowest level of the dole – about $440 a fortnight for singles – plus $107 in fortnightly rent assistance.

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the discussions had presented an ethical dilemma to church organisations. ”What’s been happening … is that when the Immigration Department realised that the offshore horror show wasn’t stopping the boats, they’ve been casting around for ways in which to make life in Australia more uncomfortable, frightening, and verging on persecution,” Ms Curr said.

The discussions were confirmed by two other sources, but a spokesman for the Department of Immigration said: ”It’s not our practice to comment on discussions that may or may not have taken place between DIAC [the Department of Immigration and Citizenship] and other organisations.”

He confirmed, however, that people sent to Nauru and Manus Island will be processed in a separate scheme to those on Australian soil. ”The ones that are already on Nauru and Manus, and the ones that will be transferred there in the future, their claims for protection will be processed within those countries.”

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Murray-Darling plan is go, but facing opposition

ENVIRONMENT Minister Tony Burke has declared an end to more than 100 years of fighting over the Murray-Darling Basin after signing into law a long-awaited plan to save the river system.
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But the plan still faces hurdles, with the Greens saying they will move to disallow it when it is tabled in Parliament next week, and biggest basin state New South Wales expressing hostility to its final design.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Burke said Australia had been waiting for the reform since Federation.

”In my view, Australia has been putting this off for more than a century. That needs to end, that ends today,” Mr Burke said.

Laws to restore the river basin were introduced under the former Howard government. It took five years and several iterations before the plan was finalised.

Under the plan, an average 2750 billion litres of water will be recovered each year for the river’s environmental sites – wetlands, flood plains, and riverside forests – by 2019. Almost $10 billion has been promised for voluntary buybacks of farmers’ water entitlements and water-saving upgrades to irrigation infrastructure.

A separate bill, which passed the Senate this week, allows the government to spend another $1.8 billion by 2024 to recover an extra 450 billion litres a year for the river through water savings from on-farm infrastructure upgrades.

In a concession to state governments, particularly Victoria, the plan allows for up to 650 billion litres of the water to be recovered to come from so-called ”environmental works and measures” such as pumping and piping water into wetlands.

The plan will have to survive a disallowance motion by the Greens, with the minor party’s water spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, saying they wanted it amended because not enough water was delivered for the river to ensure its environmental health.

”It is extremely disappointing to see the Labor government working to deliver a plan that satisfies Barnaby Joyce and his big irrigator friends,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

Opposition parliamentary secretary Simon Birmingham said the opposition would inspect the details of the plan before making its position clear. But he hoped the Coalition could ”work with the government to get the types of assurances and commitments in place that are needed to be able to get an outcome from this”.

The plan received a mixed response from farmers, with some saying they had to trust that the government would recover the vast bulk of water through infrastructure projects rather than buybacks. The Australian Conservation Foundation gave the plan qualified support, but other green groups said it failed the environment.

An intergovernmental agreement with state governments on how the basin plan is to be implemented is also still to be signed. Mr Burke said he expected that to happen at next month’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh said the state government had issues to be resolved before it could lend full support.

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Historic conservation deal offers peace for Tasmania

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THE federal and Tasmanian governments have swung in behind the state’s landmark forests peace deal, but warned that it is yet to be set in law.

The deal hammered out by industry and green groups in 30 months of talks offered a “quite extraordinary” prospect, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said.

“We are heading towards something that is a unique win for jobs in Tasmania, that has conservation benefits that many people would not have thought possible,” Mr Burke said on Thursday.

“So we’re heading towards that,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings said the deal offered the prospect of putting behind the state a 30-year-long conflict over native forests.

“My hope is that people will see this as a historic day across the nation,” Ms Giddings said.

The state Labor-Green government began a legislative battle to enact key points, threatened by opposition in the state upper house, while bolstered by some industry groups and the Liberal opposition.

Under the agreement, conservationists won massive extensions to the protection of contested areas of state forest.

A total of 123,650 hectares would be nominated for inclusion in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, out of 504,012 hectares to be protected from logging.

The deal was made possible, after a collapse in talks last month, when the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania buckled to conservation groups.

The forest association agreed to a native forest sawlog quota of 137,000 cubic metres, or 22 per cent below a benchmark set in an interim agreement hammered out by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year.

The association’s chief executive, Terry Edwards, warned that for the agreement to work, the industry would need financial aid on the “orders of magnitude” above the remaining $100 million of a $276 million federal package. He said there were extreme groups on both sides who would attempt to tear it down.

“We call on them to stop the protesting, stop the extremism and embrace the agreement,” he said.

Mainstream environment groups including the Wilderness Society and Australian Conservation Foundation gave an undertaking that they would back the forest industry, and warned that cherry picking parts of the deal would lead to its entire collapse.

“Basically this sets up a fundamentally different relationship with environment groups and industry than has existed for the past 30 years,” said a key negotiator, Environment Tasmania director Phill Pullinger.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown said the deal offered the promise of a new beginning for the state, but said he was worried about some aspects, including the continued level of native forest logging.

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Wonky values in golden ticket visa program

Chinese-born businessman Henry Yang says the government is in effect selling Australia to wealthy buyers.WEALTHY Asian business people are lining up for the federal government’s new ”golden ticket” visa, which waives the usual criteria for skilled migrants – such as an ability to speak English – in exchange for a $5 million investment in Australia.
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As Australia’s refugee debate rages on, the federal government is rolling out the welcome mat for a select class of migrant and it expects 700 new wealthy residents annually under its Significant Investor Visa program, which opens for expressions of interest on Saturday.

For permanent residency, migrants must have $5 million and live in Australia 40 days a year for four years.

With their eyes on a bucket of funds worth potentially $3.5 billion a year, Australia’s biggest investment banks and consultancy firms have been busy spruiking the new visa.

Migration agents say that while most potential applicants are China’s new rich, millionaires across south-east Asia, India, South America, Russia and Taiwan are also keen.

Chinese-born Henry Yang, 42, came to Australia three years ago on a subclass 163 visa – a business skills migration program. He has built up a successful $3 million business exporting Australian wine to China, but he is sceptical about the value of the significant investor program.

He believes entry requirements should focus on entrepreneurship and economic value, not just capital. ”I don’t think it’s a sustainable system for a visa,” he said. ”It sounds like [the government] is selling Australia.”

Others also find the idea a bit unseemly. “This is buying a visa,” Monash University migration expert Bob Birrell said. “[This visa] treats Australian residence as a commodity.”

Under the federal government’s broad program criteria, each state can stipulate where the $5 million is to be spent. New South Wales is aggressively competing for the wealthy migrants and wants $1.5 million from every $5 million invested in a state infrastructure fund. In Victoria, migration agents are waiting on the Baillieu government to issue guidelines.

Businessman and Sydney Swans chairman Richard Colless pushed for the visa with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Mr Colless is chairman of an Australian property fund at global investment bank Moelis & Co and is said to be wooing applicants. “We would be one of many to say this is a great opportunity to attract long-term capital,” Mr Colless said.

Migration lawyer Michael Sing, said it was no coincidence the visa application number was 888, when the Chinese consider eight a lucky number. “We think this visa is aimed squarely at the emerging wealth in China.”

Jock Collins, a professor of social economics at the University of Technology Sydney, said that while there was a air of queue-jumping about the visa, many other developed nations – including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, had set up similar programs to tap into Asia’s new wealth.

“We’re competing pretty vigorously with every other country in the world who wants these people and their money. I think this is a valid category of immigration,” he said.

”We’re bringing people, not only their money, but also their entrepreneurial experience and their innovation.”

Interest in the new visa – referred to as the ”golden visa” among migration agents – is strong, according to most of the agents interviewed by Fairfax Media.

Agents, lawyers and investment bankers, who have been conducting seminars on the visa for business people in China, say it is more attractive than former business skills visas because it has no English language test and no age limit.

It has also shortened the required length of stay in Australia, allowing migrants to live in two countries and look after their global businesses.

The new visa is part of a revamped skilled migration program. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimates that 700 visas will be issued to significant investors each year. There is room for about 7000 places under the business skills program.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the visa was ”an important new tool in the armoury of Australia’s financial services sector as Australia looks to compete in our region for wealth and highly skilled migrants and the capital that comes with them”.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the visa had the Coalition’s support. He said the government should make sure the program was not just about accessing capital but about new residents who could make a significant contribution.

A recent report on Chinese wealth by research group Hurun – known for its annually published China Rich List – found the economic powerhouse now has more than a million millionaires and 85 per cent of them plan to send their children abroad to be educated.

“For high net worth individuals, particularly from south-east Asia and China, Australia’s education system is a huge attraction,” Deloitte immigration spokesmanMark Wright said. The firm is dealing with between 75 and 100 wealthy individuals interested in the new visa.

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Floods, new rules add to refugees’ misery

Wet, wet, wet: Tropical downpours have caused flooding and damage in Nauru’s detention centre.TORRENTIAL rain left parts of the Nauru detention centre underwater on Thursday in what Amnesty International described as vindication of their assessment of conditions at the centre as ”totally unacceptable”.
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”Some spots of the camp were under nearly a foot of water,” Amnesty’s Graham Thom told Fairfax after visiting the centre. ”Shoes were floating on the water, some of the tent floorboards were floating. It was extraordinary how much like a pond the front of some of the tents had become in a very quick period of time.”

The heavy rain followed a reported suicide attempt at the centre by an Iranian asylum seeker on Wednesday night after the Gillard government announced that many of the asylum seekers who have arrived since offshore processing resumed would be released into the community on bridging visas.

Immigration officials confirmed an ”incident of attempted self-harm” at the centre, saying the injuries were minor and the man had been treated on site, where 387 asylum seekers are accommodated in tents.

Refugee advocates said the Iranian tried to take his life after hearing of the new policy under which the ”no advantage” principle intended to apply to those sent to Nauru has been adapted for those who will remain in Australia. They said that the injured man had been taken to the facility’s medical centre and remained separated from other detainees.

Amnesty officials, who were at the centre as asylum seekers became aware of the news, reported that many asylum seekers were in a highly anxious state, and asking why they had been sent to Nauru, when others who arrived at the same time would be released into the community.

Despite assurances that they would be allowed to photograph detainees and conditions inside the centre on Thursday, the Amnesty officials were refused permission to record any images.

Dr Thom said the theme of interviews with asylum seekers over the past three days was how unfair they considered their situation. ”They said, ‘Look at what we have been going through for the last few months, and now it’s even worse for us’.

”A lot of them said, ‘We’re happy those people are going to be out in the community, but why have we been forgotten? Why have we been cast aside, pushed into a corner? Why are we locked up like this?’ Again and again, they just spoke of the injustice of the situation.”

There was also despair after Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed that they could be waiting five years before being resettled in Australia if their claims for refugee status are upheld.

”I think the news came as a real kick in the guts to the guys inside,” Dr Thom said. ”Those aware of the five years said, ‘Come and look where we live? How can we stay like this for five years? We are going to die here.”’

Aside from the uncertainty of their situations, Dr Thom said that the leaking tents had left many with wet bedding and led to skin conditions before Thursday’s heavy rain.

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