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Exercising discretion

By Marianne Dickie - posted Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Any migration agent who assists clients with the area of ministerial discretion will admit that this is an area of work that is both frustrating and highly rewarding. The tension arises because this area of migration law is shrouded in mystery. There is no definitive way to say why a submission is successful.

Ministerial discretion is known as “unconfined discretion” there is no equivalent power in any other Commonwealth legislation. The only check on this power is the Migration Act which provides that the Minister must table notice in both houses of parliament when he exercises his discretion.

The Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, has indicated that he is uncomfortable with the power and it is now under review. When deciding how to proceed, he needs to ensure that the Senate Inquiry of 2004 is not overlooked.


The inquiry was contentious: despite difficult relations with both the department and the Ministers office, the committee received submissions from some of the most eminent stakeholders in this area. Overwhelmingly they recommended that ministerial discretion be retained with amendments.

The discretion power was a result of changes made to the Migration Act and regulations in 1989. Prior to this, discretionary powers were delegable to departmental decision makers.

The first bill proposing these changes was blocked in the Senate by the opposition and the Democrats who argued that it went too far in removing discretion from departmental officers.

Although the media focus is usually upon asylum seekers, the regime allows the Minister to exercise a variety of discretionary powers under section 351, 417, 345, 391, 454 and 501J. These powers are non reviewable, non delegable and non compellable.

Ministerial discretion involves three decisions: the decision to exercise discretion; to consider exercising discretion; and not to exercise discretion. In practice the third decision not to exercise discretion is often delegated to the Department. This is because the Ministerial Intervention Unit, which “vets” the requests and provides a recommendation to the Minister, handles administration of decision-making.

Several important issues where raised by the Senate Inquiry and remain unresolved to this day:

  1. the restriction of discretion means that people can only access the Minister after they have applied unsuccessfully for a visa, and undergo review in the relevant tribunal;
  2. only the original request is considered; and
  3. it is the primary mechanism for complying with Australia’s international obligations under several international treaties.

People who do not fit into a visa category, but have a valid reason to remain in Australia, have no choice but to go through the entire process of application and review before a decision can be made regarding their case. This is not only costly, but time consuming, with the average case taking six months to a year before a decision is reached. During this process the majority of people are unable to work or receive benefits.

Unlike other areas of migration advice and assistance, one does not have to be a lawyer or migration agent to help someone seek ministerial discretion. Any one can write to the Minister and ask him to exercise this power.

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About the Author

Marianne van Galen Dickie began working with refugees in 1994 when she was employed as a Project Officer and Management Committee member of The Rehabilitation Unit for Survivors of Torture and Trauma (TRUSTT) in Queensland. Marianne worked as the immigration advisor for the Australian Democrats from 1997 and until 2004. During her time as an advisor Marianne worked through some of the most politically contentious periods and changes to Migration law. She has authored amendments to Commonwealth legislation, prepared Senate Submissions, and contributed to the Qld & Victorian Lawyers Practice Manuals. Since moving to the ACT in 2007 Marianne has worked for the ANU as the Assistant Convenor and Program Co-ordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Migration Law. Marianne continues to give pro bono migration advice through her work with the Migrant Resource Centre of Canberra and Queanbeyan.

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