'It has been problematic': Ardern vows to keep pressure on 501 issue

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 23 May 2022, 6:08pm
(Photo / Getty)
(Photo / Getty)

'It has been problematic': Ardern vows to keep pressure on 501 issue

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 23 May 2022, 6:08pm

Jacinda Ardern vows to keep pressure on Australia over its "501" deportation policy after reports a New Zealand woman was found dead at a detention centre in New South Wales. 

It comes as new Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese acknowledges "friction" between the countries on the issue and amid renewed calls for Australia to end its "disgraceful" and "racist" policy, which disproportionately impacts New Zealanders. 

Labor's Albanese was officially sworn in today as Australia's 31st prime minister, ending nine years of conservative-leaning government in the country. 

Ardern said she'd met Albanese before, with her last "face to face" meeting in February during her visit to Australia. 

Albanese had even called Ardern on his way to give a speech to supporters on Saturday evening, and they agreed to speak the following day again. 

"I thought that was incredibly generous given his timetable that evening," Ardern said. 

There was "obviously a very strong relationship" with Australia regardless of leader or party, she said. 

But Albanese had already acknowledged "friction" between the countries on certain issues, she said. 

"I am not going to pre-empt any of those talks, but even acknowledgement of that friction is helpful," she said. 

"Because it has been problematic." 

Australia's Channel 9 came under fire last year after a news piece filmed New Zealanders on the runway being deported, with support of the Australian Border Force. Photo / Channel 9 

In particular, Ardern said her position on the issue of deportations to New Zealand, of people with "little or no connection" to the country, had not changed. 

Her comments referred to the "501" policy, where under section 501 of Australia's Migration Act, the minister can refuse or cancel visas on character grounds if someone has "a substantial criminal record" or has been sentenced to imprisonment for a period of 12 months or longer. 

In theory, it has been promoted as ridding the country of serious criminal offenders, but in reality, many have been deported for relatively minor offences, and have spent far longer in centres awaiting deportation than in prison. 

Over the past decade, this policy has seen thousands of people deported to New Zealand, some of whom had lived in Australia since shortly after they were born, consequently separating them from family and support networks. 

The policy has recently been linked to a dramatic rise in gang numbers and violent unrest here, with even new chapters sprouting up, and has increasingly been a point of friction between the two countries. 

Ardern famously called out former prime minister Scott Morrison on the topic during a press conference in Sydney in early 2020. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speak to media at a press conference in early 2020. Photo / Getty Images 

The issue boiled over in March last year after a journalist from Australia's Channel 9 harangued deportees as they were escorted in handcuffs to a passenger jet on the runway at Brisbane Airport. 

In the news piece, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said: "It's taking the trash out, then we can make Australia a safer place." 

The Herald later revealed the Australian Border Force had ignored the privacy of 501 deportees by providing their names to the Channel 9 journalist. 

The new Labor government has indicated it will continue deportations under section 501 but could change the ministerial direction to ensure decisions considered factors such as the time a person had been in Australia. 

In particular, this would address the disproportionate impact of the policy on people from New Zealand, who make up the largest proportion of those deported, and which politicians here have long said was "corrosive" to relations between the countries. 

"My approach has not changed," Ardern said. 

"It is a New Zealand perspective. We accept because we do it too, circumstances under which people will be deported. 

"We have always reserved the right for New Zealand to do that, and under certain circumstances we do. 

"The area we have had grievance is where individuals are being deported who have little or no connection to New Zealand. 

"I will be utterly consistent no matter whom the leader is in Australia with raising that grievance." 

Ardern's comments come after reports emerge from Australia the body of a young New Zealand woman awaiting deportation was found at Villawood detention centre on Sunday morning. 

She was found dead about 10.45am, shortly after a room search by Serco officers, and is believed to have killed herself. She is believed to have been about 27 years old. 

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said the woman had mental health issues and had requested her medication earlier in the morning. 

Rintoul said the woman's death follows the suicide of an Iranian asylum seeker in March, along with other suicide attempts from detainees at the centre. 

It is believed the woman's visa had been cancelled under the section 501 policy. 

"It is absolutely tragic, and reflects a serious problem across detention centres in Australia. We are calling for a full judicial review." 

Rintoul said people awaiting deportation under section 501 made up about 80 per cent of those in these centres, and the largest group "by far" was New Zealanders. 

Many ended up waiting in these centres for years at a time, and most held on "relatively trivial" offences including minor drug charges and even traffic offences, he said. 

"And the only reason this punishment can be inflicted on them is they are not Australian citizens." 

Rintoul said over the past near-decade since the "disgraceful" policy came into force both the Liberals and Labor had gone along with it. But he hoped the new government would offer a chance to put it under the microscope once again. 

"We are hoping Ardern redoubles her efforts to press the new Labor government. It really has to stop." 

On the woman who had died, Ardern said she had not been briefed. She would seek further information, she said. 

- by Michael Neilson, NZ Herald