Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2015


Australian Border Force Bill 2015, Customs and Other Legislation Amendment (Australian Border Force) Bill 2015; Second Reading

1:29 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Australian Border Force Bill 2015 and the Customs and Other Legislation Amendment (Australian Border Force) Bill 2015 on behalf of the Australian Greens. The combined effect of the two bills is to merge the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service into one new department, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with the newly created Australian Border Force to function as the department's operational enforcement arm, taking responsibility for immigration compliance, enforcement and detention services and other operational functions. In his second reading speech the minister said that the Australian border is: 'a national asset' that 'supports strong national security by interdicting prohibited goods and people who seek to do us harm'. The Australian Greens accept it is imperative to Australian national security that rigorous immigration and customs laws be enforced by professional, well-trained personnel. But the Australian border is already well served by these laws and these personnel, and the cynical rebranding of this service as a 'border force' will not protect us any further than do the laws that we currently have. Rather, the notion that our border needs a force to protect it is one that has been concocted by the government to exploit the base fears of those here in Australia who are concerned about what is going on in our region, what is going on in our world. It is being exploited by the government for their own political ends.

Language is really important. It dictates the culture of an organisation such as the immigration department. It sends a message to those who work there and to those who rely on its services. And in this case, language is so important. We have already seen this government direct public servants in this place to refer to asylum seekers as 'illegal arrivals' when, of course, there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum here in Australia. In fact, even the Migration Act does not refer to asylum seekers as illegal arrivals. Language is so important. In this case it sends a message to asylum seekers, who are entitled to seek Australia's protection, that for some reason they are not welcome here. They have every legal right under international law and under Australian law to seek Australia's protection and to arrive here as asylum seekers. Language ostracises large sections of Australian society who might see themselves reflected in the faces of these asylum seekers and the people who want to come to Australia, to contribute to our community and to call Australia home.

We all know that this rebranding of the immigration department through the establishment of this Border Force is all about Tony Abbott's get-tough-on-immigration stance. It is a front for Tony Abbott's government to say that they are the ones being the toughest on people who arrive at our borders. Of course we are talking about asylum seekers; we are talking about refugees; we are talking about people who have fled war zones and torture. These are not people we need to be afraid of. These are people for whom we need to put in place a proper processing regime—to find out who they are, where they have come from and why they are entitled to or need Australia's help. They are not people that we should necessarily instantly have to be afraid of. The last thing asylum seekers want to do is to cause us harm—they are fleeing harm. The irony of this entire debate is that it is refugees who are fleeing harm, and they are coming to Australia not to breach our borders but to invoke the protection of our borders.

There are many, many concerning aspects to the entire regime of this government, and they are exemplified by this government's establishment of Border Force. You have got to wonder: how does a group of asylum seekers feel when they have been intercepted on the high seas, confronted by Customs personnel who say they are working for Australia's Border Force and then have their claims—as we know is happening—screened out on the boats, without access to proper legal assistance and without even access to proper interpreters to be able to explain their case? But there they are, confronted at the very first point of call by Australia's Border Force. Is that really how we should be engaging with some of the most vulnerable people who come to our region asking for our help?

We, the Australian Greens in this place, will continue to remind our colleagues that asylum seekers are not a threat to us. They do not require a military response or a 'border force'. They are overwhelmingly refugees in need of our protection. Why else would they put their lives in danger just to get here? It would be much easier to buy a ticket with Qantas and fly here yourself, if, indeed, you had the freedom to be able to do that. Obviously, they are fleeing persecution where their lives are at even greater risk. Why would you put yourself in harm's way if you did not need to?

You have to wonder what the rest of the world is thinking when Australia continues on this path that the current government is taking us down when it comes to our engagement with our region and our immigration policies. The Australian Greens in this place will continue to remind people that refugees are not an economic burden to our country but are in fact some of the most motivated, eager to contribute immigrants we will ever have. They are people who want to contribute, they want safety for their families and they want to feel part of a safe and vibrant community. That is why they have chosen Australia to be their home. And it is why they are asking Australia to welcome them and to help them to put their lives back together; to help them to be able to give proper education and care to their children and to allow them simply to get on with the rest of their lives.

You have got to wonder, when you look at this week's budget papers, why on earth we are spending almost half a million dollars per person—per woman, per child, per man—to detain asylum seekers in Nauru. This government has all of this so backwards. There are many, many concerning points in relation to this government's direction, but one of the last things I want to mention—which is really important in relation to this Border Force legislation—is around the issue of secrecy. This government is obsessed with covering up and keeping both the Australian people and, indeed, the parliament in the dark with what is going on inside their Border Force operations. These bills will further entrench the unjustified and dangerous culture of secrecy of the department of immigration. This is yet another example of the government's eagerness to compromise the basic principle of transparent government in the name of national security.

The bill entrenches secrecy by making it a criminal offence, punishable by two years imprisonment, for Department of Immigration employees to disclose information. This bill will also allow employees to be summarily fired for this, and removes their right of review for unfair dismissal. You have to wonder why the Labor Party is not jumping up and down about the right of public servants in this place to have a proper review when they have been fired for standing up for what is right.

This is an issue that is going to impact on 15,000 employees of the Department of Immigration. Those people deserve proper protections by this parliament. Those people deserve to know that if there is something being done that is wrong, and which it is in the public interest to know, that the Senate has their backs. Those staff who we ask to go out onto the high seas to carry out these dangerous operations and to work in our detention centres to deal with the human misery of this policy, deserve to know that the Australian parliament has their backs. When there is a matter that is in breach of the law or in breach of government policy, or when there is a matter that is in breach of what is considered to be morally acceptable, those people deserve the opportunity to have a proper public interest test applied before they are simply thrown out on their ears.

They need a right of review, and they need to know that if information is in the public interest that this parliament will have their backs. We want public servants to be able to give advice without fear or favour. We want public servants to be able to stand up when they believe it is in the public interest to do so. This bill further entrenches the culture of secrecy of this government, particularly the culture of secrecy that is being carried out in the immigration department.

The Australian Law Council of Australia recommended a very simple amendment to this bill in its submission to the Senate inquiry, proposing the radical idea that whistleblowing not be criminalised—imagine that!—where the disclosure would be in the public interest. This is a very basic amendment. It makes sure that here, in this place, elected representatives are protecting our public servants and giving them the best cover they can get to ensure that there is no intimidation against offering advice without fear or favour.

You have to wonder, with all of the accusations that are currently coming out of the Nauru detention centre—child abuse, sexual assault of women, intimidation of staff and even asylum seekers who raise concerns about what is going on—why this bill comes before this place, today, removing the ability for public servants to stick their heads up and say, 'You know what—things aren't okay. The government needs to look at this. The minister needs to take responsibility for this action.'

A really important signal to send to our public servants is that, in the course of their service to the country, the best thing they can do is to ensure that, when it is in the public interest that something be known, they act in the public interest—and that they have protection to do that. I will be moving that amendment to this bill.

It is not the case that what we don't know cannot hurt us. Government secrecy is causing us considerable damage. It is leaving a stain on our national character. And I do not say that lightly. The current culture inside our detention centres, inside our immigration department and inside our minister's office is about secrecy and cover-up. This bill would stop public servants from being able to raise genuine, serious concerns about what is going on. That is not the type of culture that we should be endorsing or entrenching in our Public Service.

The Greens strongly condemn the changing direction of this government's immigration policies. This bill takes us down that path even further. It represents another regrettable step in that direction. The Australian Greens do not support this piece of legislation. We will be moving the amendment to protect public servants from at least the very basic element of being dismissed just because they wanted to stand up for what was in the public interest. And it is not just a matter of being fired. If it is going to be a criminal offence to speak out against what is going on in the department we need to make sure that people have at least a public interest test by which their actions are judged.


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