Senate blocks visa cancellation bill as Labor accuses Coalition of backing out of bipartisan deal

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The Senate has blocked a Coalition bill to strengthen visa cancellation powers, after Labor accused the government of reneging on a deal to amend and pass it with bipartisan support.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

On Wednesday the shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, accused the government of putting the bill to a vote as a “political wedge” instead of getting “a good outcome for victims of family violence”.

The prime minister’s office rejected Keneally’s claim Scott Morrison overruled immigration minister, Alex Hawke. Keneally claimed Hawke had agreed to deal with Labor at a meeting on Tuesday.

Related: Government accused of ‘shirking responsibility’ in bid to overturn ruling against Aboriginal deportation

The Strengthening Character Test bill would have lowered the bar for visa cancellation by allowing the minister to cancel the visa of a person convicted of an offence that carries a term of two years or more, regardless of whether they were sentenced to a term of that duration.

© Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP Scott Morrison’s office rejected Kristina Keneally’s claim the PM overruled the immigration minister’s deal with Labor to amend bill strengthening visa cancellation powers.

Labor expressed concerns including that the changes were retrospective; could see low-level offending trigger a cancellation; and would increase the number of people deported to New Zealand, which has protested against the practice.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie proposed amendments to soften the bill by proposing only a person who served six months or more in prison could lose their visa, and protecting those with a longstanding connection to Australia. The government did not agree to these amendments.

Keneally claimed that on Tuesday Hawke had agreed to delay the bill until the November sittings and work with Labor on amendments so “low level offending is not captured” and to manage deportations to New Zealand.

Keneally said Hawke then “reneged” on that deal, and argued that Morrison had clearly “yanked [his] chain” because “only one person can make a cabinet minister renege on a deal” – the prime minister.

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Greens senator, Nick McKim, spoke against the bill on the basis it is retrospective and could harm those with no recent offending, and would impose an “arbitrary penalty”.

Senator Stirling Griff said the bill “takes the hard work” out of considering the merits of cancellation, setting a bar that was “so low” deportation could become a “tick-a-box exercise” for even minor offences like a verbal threat or scuffle.

Shortly before noon, despite the government lacking Labor and crossbench support, the bill was put to a vote at the second reading stage. The vote was tied 25-all, blocking the bill.

The prime minister’s office denied overruling Hawke or seeking to wedge Labor. A spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “Labor have known for two years that we intended to legislate this election commitment and now at five minutes to midnight the candidate for Fowler [Keneally] is trying to cover up the fact she hasn’t done her homework.

“Labor want to vote down protections that would keep stalkers, domestic violence abusers and sexual assault offenders from having their visa canceled or refused. Time’s up for Labor.”

Keneally told the Senate the minister already has powers to cancel the visas of people convicted of sexual offences, weapons offences, breaches of AVOs and offences against women and children, after Labor supported laws extending the powers in 2014.

The government has cancelled almost 10,000 visas since those reforms.

Earlier on Wednesday, Hawke argued that any offence capable of resulting in a sentence of two years in prison is a “very serious category of crime”.

Related: ‘Authoritarian-style’ law would allow Australia to use secret evidence to deport migrants

Hawke told Radio National the bill was also necessary to bolster powers to consider the bad character of people applying for visas offshore to “stop it before it arrives to Australia”.

“I actually don’t find this controversial in community – I find almost universal support for this, it’s simply protecting our society against violent criminals.”

Hawke claimed that the government had “no intent to deport an Aboriginal from Australia”, despite the fact he and the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, have applied to the high court to restore their power to do so.

In February 2020 the high court rejected a bid to deport two Aboriginal people – Daniel Love and Brendan Thoms – from Australia, a decision that will be reconsidered in a new case by a New Zealand man resisting deportation on the basis he has been culturally adopted as Aboriginal.

Hawke told Radio National he wouldn’t comment on the case. “It’s a complex question of law, it’s not about an opinion of the government, and it has to be tested and resolved,” he said.

“That’s what the government is doing. Of course, there is no intent to deport an Aboriginal from Australia, ever.“

Despite Hawke’s claim, nine Aboriginal people have been released from immigration as a result of the Love and Thoms decision.

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