Aus detention centre whistleblowers criminalised
The Australian government has passed a law which criminalises whistleblowers who speak out against the conditions of the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
The Australian government has passed a law which criminalises whistleblowers who speak out against the conditions at Canberra's offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
The Australian Border Force Act 2015, which makes a number of changes to the country's customs and border laws, will come into effect next month.
Mary Baines reports.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson on asylum seekers, Greg Barns, says the law will have a chilling effect on what any worker at the centres can say.
GREG BARNS: It creates a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for up to two years for any person who reveals to the media or any other organisation, the exceptions of course being government departments, and police and coroners, anything that happens in detention centres. It certainly cuts across the professional and ethical obligations groups like the Salvation Army, doctors and others have to report on physical and mental harm.
A section of the Act entitled 'Secrecy' provides that an entrusted person commits an offence if he or she makes a record of, or discloses, what is termed protected information. An "entrusted person" is defined as anyone who works in the centre, including government employees, consultants and contractors, and "protected information" is defined as any information obtained by an entrusted person. The Act also requires all workers subscribe to an oath, but the contents of the oath are not detailed. Mr Barns says the law is an attempt to stifle more information about the centres getting out.
GREG BARNS: There's no doubt it was put in place because Australia has become an international embarrassment and a pariah when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers. And that's largely because we've had relevations from NGOs such as Save The Children, from doctors who have previously worked in detention centres, over a long period of time now complaining about the conditions, the appalling conditions in detention centres.
A pediatrician, David Issacs, was contracted to the Nauru detention centre by International Health and Medical Services last year. On his return, Dr Isaacs spoke out against his contract on the conditions in the facility, saying he had a moral obligation to do so.
DAVID ISSACS: If I was to do that now, it seems I would face two years in prison. I still think I'd be better off than the asylum seekers because they don't know how long they're going to be there, it could be more than two years. But still, two years, for a doctor speaking out, I'm absolutely appalled. I think that that's the sort of silence of freedom of speech that occurs in countries not like Australia or New Zealand.
Dr Isaacs says the law will likely deter doctors from going to the centres in Nauru and Manus Island to treat patients.
DAVID ISSACS: If a doctor wants to go to Nauru, they can only go if they are absolutely not going to say anything about the conditions that are happening there. Well, that's condoning what amounts to torture really. If you go and support that, then you're not much better than a doctor who works in Abu Ghraib are you? It's a terrible dilemma for doctors - should I go and look after the patients, or should I say I morally can't support the regime so I won't go and look after the patients, and then what happens to the patients?
The Greens were the only party to oppose the legislation. Its immigration spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, during her speech on the second reading of the Bill, said whistleblowers are needed now more than ever.
She says without them, the child abuse and rape being carried out in Australia's name in Nauru would not have come to light.
SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: With all of the accusations that are currently coming out of the Nauru detention centre - child abuse, the sexual assault of women, the intimidation of both staff and even asylum seekers to raise concerns of what's going on. You've got to wonder why we have this Bill today before this place removing the ability for public servants to stick their head up and say, you know what, things aren't okay.
Senator Hanson-Young moved an amendment to the Bill, proposing that whistleblowing not be criminalised where the disclosure would be in the public interest. The amendment was rejected by the government.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, says there are appropriate measures for reporting misconduct in place.
He says the new law does not override The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, which provides protections for officials, including contractors, who wish to report maladministration.
In Mr Dutton's speech at the second reading of the Bill, he explained why the secrecy provisions are needed. He says similar provisions are in place at customs, border protection services and a range of other agencies.
PETER DUTTON: This provision, madam speaker, provides assurance to industry and our domestic and international law enforcement and intelligence partners that sensitive information provided to the Australian border force and my department more broadly will be appropriately protected. The provision also enables authorised disclosure where this is appropriate.
The Australian Labor Party supported the Act, but its immigration and border protection spokesperson, Richard Marles, could not be reached for comment. The law changes will come into effect next month.
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