“Australia is the only country in the world which charges innocent people the cost of locking them up,” Julian Burnside QC has told Crikey.

As reported in Crikey yesterday, the Australian Government is currently chasing debts from 386 former detainees that add up to a total of almost 8 million dollars. The debts accrued include charges for accommodation in detention centres, food and the cost of transporting detainees to different locations.

Along with these standard costs, solitary confinement for former detainees is separately billed, Burnside told Crikey, with GST added to the final balance. 

“A few years ago a detainee took a test case to the Federal Court challenging the constitutional validity of charging innocent detainees the cost of their own detention,” says Burnside. “The challenge lost. He was represented by pro bono lawyers. The Government is now chasing him not only for the detention costs ($29k) but also for the government’s legal costs ($31k).” 

“Several detainees have received bills for up to $250k. A man recently deported received a bill for $512k. One bloke now living in Ballarat is paying off his detention debt at $100 per month. It will take him 170 years to clear it,” says Burnside. 

According to DIAC spokesperson Sandi Logan, the table below shows immigration related debt waivers and write-offs for the year ended 30 June 2007:

*detention debts might not have accrued in the same year.

The table below shows immigration related debt waivers and write-offs for the year ended 30 June 2008:

*Detention debts might not have accrued in the same year.

In April of this year Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan released a report on DIAC’s Administration of Detention Debt Waiver and Write-off. The report stated:

Complaints to the Ombudsman’s office indicate that the size of some debts cause stress, anxiety and financial hardship to many individuals who are now living lawfully in the Australian community, as well as for those who have left Australia.

The report made several recommendations, including Recommendation 3:

Where a person is in detention awaiting removal from Australia, DIAC should review the circumstances of the person’s detention to assess whether factors beyond their control led to a delay in resolving their detention, which should result in a reduction in their detention debt.

And Recommendation 4:

The “Notice of Detention Costs Incurred to this Date” should be provided to people in detention at regular intervals during their detention.

Crikey asked Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner’s office this morning that given that the power to waive debts to the Commonwealth rests with the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and his delegate, would the Minister consider waiving or suspending Kasian Wililo’s debt?

Nardia Dazkiw, spokesperson for Minister Tanner responded:

Any individual, company, or other organisation can submit a request for waiver of debt under section 34 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (FMA Act). To date, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and his department have not received a request for waiver of debt from Mr Kasian Wililo.

Tanner’s spokesperson told Crikey that there is no intention to review section 47 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act. “It should be noted that under section 47 agencies have significant discretion to determine whether a debt is not economical to pursue.”  

“Responsibility for the detention debt recovery scheme rests with the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans,” Tanner’s office told Crikey.

Crikey also asked that given (according to DIAC) an application for waiver of a debt will only be successful “where it is found that there is a moral obligation on the Commonwealth to waive the debt”, did the Minister believe that there is a moral obligation in Mr Wililo’s case?

“The Finance Minister or his delegate will make a decision under section 34 of the FMA Act based on the merits of the case as established by the claimant. Policy guidelines for the operation of waiver of debt are provided by Finance Circular No.2006/05 — Discretionary Compensation Mechanisms,” said Tanner’s office. 

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW