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Could Immigration 'secrecy' act trump mandatory reporting of abuse?

  • 09 June 2015

The Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth) (ABFA) was quietly passed into law recently with the support of both major parties. It makes an interesting contrast with the citizenship laws which the Government is proposing.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last week he would like all citizens to both be able to recite, and obey in practice, the words of the oath of allegiance by which 'I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I will respect and whose laws I will uphold and obey.'

Those who are not able to both recite and obey will apparently face withdrawal of their citizenship under laws yet to be finalised.

Under the ABFA, by contrast, an oath is also to be taken by members of the Border Force. Its contents are not disclosed in the Act but breaches are to be punished with administrative sanctions under the Public Service Act.

In addition, the Act provides for a two-year prison term for anyone who discloses 'protected information' (information which they discover as a result of doing work for the Border Force, whether as an employee, contractor or otherwise).

Such information would include the conditions in the onshore or offshore detention centres which the Force and its contractors administer as well as mistreatment of asylum seekers or others.

It is no wonder that the Australian Medical Association, asylum seeker advocates and others are seriously concerned about what may be afoot. Secrecy is not generally conducive to good governance — one of the most effective ways to stop abuse is to make it public.

Witness the pressure brought to bear in the US in the last week to restrict the most obnoxious aspects of America's surveillance of its population — pressure which would never have built up had it not been for the disclosure of the program by the exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

The way we treat people in detention, who are at any rate among the most vulnerable in our care, is not a matter of state security which might justify secrecy. As refugees, their identity might need to be kept confidential but not the way they are treated. This assumes, of course, that they are treated in accordance with Australian and international law.

The ABFA however seems based on the assumption that revelation will damage the Government — presumably by exposing illegal activities.

We certainly know that there is at least good reason