By Megan Driscoll
Asylum seeker policy has been a polarising subject in Australian politics for more than a decade and it continues to be so with the recently-elected Abbott government attempting to impose its perspective on the political debate on the topic by mandating asylum seekers arriving by boat be referred to as ‘illegal’. Consecutive federal governments have introduced increasingly harsh schemes to deal with the perceived influx of people arriving in Australian territorial waters by boat to seek asylum. The High Court is yet to hear a case challenging the legality of the current arrangement of transferring asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, Plaintiff S156/2013 v Minister for Immigration, Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship (transcripts of directions hearings here and here).
Plaintiff M79/2012 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship  HCA 24 (Plaintiff M79) deals with another aspect of the asylum seeker statutory regime: the validity of a temporary safe haven visa granted to a person who had not made an application. In this instance, the Minister granted a temporary safe haven visa to the plaintiff, a Sri Lankan national who arrived by boat on Christmas Island in February 2010 seeking Australia’s protection. The validity of the visa depended on the criteria the High Court determined the Minister was bound to consider when granting the visa, and whether the Minister had addressed those criteria. A majority of the Court found that the sole criterion binding the Minister was whether or not it was in the ‘public interest’ and that it was within the Minister’s discretion to determine what factors were relevant to that interest. Interestingly, Plaintiff M79 could signify that the High Court is beginning to take a more deferential approach to ministerial conduct in deciding to grant or decline visa applications than it has in the recent past, including in the case that rejected the previous government’s so-called ‘Malaysian solution’. Continue reading