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Albanese government gives new Ministerial Direction on visa appeals to make ‘community safety’ paramount

The Albanese government is giving a new “Ministerial Direction” to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on visa cases, telling it to make community safety paramount in considering appeals from non-citizens with serious criminal records.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the change in Question Time on Wednesday.

The Direction will apply not just to the AAT (which will be reconstituted as the Administrative Review Tribunal (ART) under legislation which this week passed through parliament) but also to all decision-makers in the Home Affairs Department.

This followed a political fracas over revelations that many criminals have had the cancellations of their visas overturned after a policy change by the Albanese government’s early last year.

That change was made at the request of then New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who pressed for New Zealanders with long associations with Australia not to be deported.

The Direction to the AAT – which reviews decisions on visa cancellations – was changed to elevate, among the other criteria to be taken into account, the strength, nature and duration of their ties to Australia.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has been under sustained attack this week, as the opposition has highlighted multiple instances of the AAT upholding the appeals of those convicted of major crimes.

In question time on Wednesday the opposition asked about a number of foreign nationals, from various countries, convicted of crimes including rape, domestic violence and assault, whose appeals had been upheld by the AAT.

The Coalition has repeatedly called for Giles to be sacked from his post. The latest row follows a string of earlier issues around the former detainees, released from immigration detention as a result of a High Court decision last year.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O'Neil, who is the senior minister in the portfolio, said on Wednesday morning TV, “It does appear that the decisions made by this independent tribunal are not meeting community expectations”. There was not enough stress being put on community safety, she said.

She said she found the tribunal’s decisions “very disconcerting”.

Giles has already re-cancelled some half dozen of the visas.

The Secretary of the Home Affairs department, Stephanie Foster, admitted to a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that the department had failed to inform Giles of the AAT decisions. This was despite having undertaken to do so.

O'Neil admitted some issues within the department had been of concern.

But she said the “urgent matter ahead of us is to get Minister Giles to reconsider these visas, as he has indicated that he’s doing, to make sure that we can […] ensure that community standards are being met in visa decisions”.

Announcing the rewriting of the Ministerial Direction, Albanese told parliament: “The only effective way of ensuring the tribunal members are making better decisions is to issue a new revised Direction, which the minister will be doing. The new directive will ensure [community protection] outweighs any other consideration.”

Giles told the ABC he had “instructed my department to advise me and my office within 24 hours now of any such decision of the administrative appeals tribunal”.

“The new, revised Direction, will make it abundantly clear community safety is a consideration that outweighs all other considerations. And beyond that […] we will introduce further mechanisms to enable the perspective of victims and their families to be more clearly brought to bear.”

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