Senate debates

Monday, 16 October 2017


Australian Border Force Amendment (Protected Information) Bill 2017; Second Reading

10:33 am

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | Hansard source

I welcome the Australian Border Force Amendment (Protected Information) Bill 2017 and the small step that it takes towards increasing transparency within Australia's offshore detention centres. I have, though, been very much appalled by the Turnbull government's lack of transparency and by its attempts to suppress whistleblowers and staff from highlighting significant concerns, instances of abuse, and the mistreatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and in Nauru.

This bill will have the practical effect of narrowing the definition of information that is protected from disclosure. It removes the broad definition of 'protected information' and gives greater clarity as to what private information is actually protected. Labor, of course, supports this move for increasing transparency—which we have been calling on for such a long period of time—into Australia's onshore detention centres and offshore immigration processing or detention centres. This bill means that individuals who have been involved in Australia's offshore detention system as contractors or employees of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, such as Save the Children workers, social workers, psychologists, doctors and lawyers, will be able to speak more freely about their experiences without fear of prosecution and without fear of up to two years imprisonment.

The Turnbull government's mismanagement of offshore processing centres and welfare and support contracts has been already the subject of two scathing reports by the Australian National Audit Office. Both reports have clearly shown that greater transparency was needed. I have been contacted over and over by people who are angry and upset—and rightly so—at the release of the Nauru files, where 26 former Save the Children workers on Manus Island and Nauru detailed what they saw and described as allegations of sexual assault and self-harm in the Nauru detention centre. This was towards women; it was towards children. It was an absolute and utter disgrace. One of the workers stated, 'You feel you can't talk about it, even though you know you should talk about it'. If it is not in the public interest to hear the experience from these workers of what is happening in our name, in Australia's name, in these offshore detention facilities, then I don't know what is. The files, which the government shrouded in secrecy, included reports of genital mutilation against young women, people sewing their lips shut, self-immolation, sexual violence, and gross mishandling of incidents by private contractors. That is what the government wanted to keep secret. That is what the government did not want the Australian public to know was happening.

In September 2016, off the back of the information and experiences detailed by these workers, Labor initiated a Senate inquiry to investigate these allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect. The Turnbull government had failed to act. The government's total inaction for the past four months on the chair's conclusions and the recommendations from that Senate inquiry is extremely appalling. It is extremely disappointing. Part of our democracy is to inquire and investigate—through the parliament and through the Senate committee process—these government failings and issues. The government needs to respond to the recommendations in that report. It has failed so far to do so.

Let's remember that the Australian Border Force Act has previously been used by the Abbott government to attempt to prosecute Save the Children workers after they revealed serious allegations of abuse of women and children. Here are workers on the ground, contracted by government to do a job. When they experience and see firsthand what is going on in these government-funded, government-run immigration detention facilities, what does our government do? When the workers report these serious allegations of abuse of women and children, what does our government do? It attempts to prosecute them. These workers were removed from the island and referred to the Australian Federal Police—by Minister Morrison, the minister for immigration at that time—for allegedly breaching section 70 of the Crimes Act. I hope this amendment will mean that this can never happen again—that a non-government organisation, contracted by a government to do a job, that saw, in the course of their work, abuse being carried out, and that, instead of being able to report and be transparent and open about their work and their job and what they saw, were suppressed—and, in fact, threatened—by a government, which said, 'Well, you go ahead and do that and we will prosecute you.' That is an absolute disgrace. That is shameful. That is why Labor very much supports this amendment to ensure that this can never happen again.

Beyond this bill there are other things that this issue raises. This is a government that has systematically maligned asylum seekers and refugees and mismanaged offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru. Indeed, there has not been any processing for the last four years. No-one in this chamber, I am sure, can possibly believe that people who sought our asylum should still be on Manus Island and Nauru in these detention facilities some four years on. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection have sat on their hands for too long in failing to explore every possible alternative to asylum seekers being stuck and locked up on Manus Island and Nauru. So this bill is a good step in increasing transparency in our offshore detention system.

I was very pleased to hear earlier this year when the government finally agreed that it would ratify the optional protocol against torture, which also requires more monitoring and investigation of what goes on in Australia's prisons and detention facilities. But I think what has been very clear to me is that, whilst we have argued for this government to lift its game in this appalling policy area of immigration detention, we are not alone here. We stand here with the voice of our own communities. Indeed, my community in Tasmania has always been an extremely outspoken one when it comes to the issues of refugees and asylum seekers. I've received hundreds and hundreds of letters, protesting not only the conditions of Australia's offshore detention centres but also the secrecy that Australia's offshore detention regime has been shrouded in. That is why this government has been basically dragged kicking and screaming to bring this amendment forward today, to backflip on its original position—because of lobbying by civil society, by the Labor Party and by people in our community who have said that this cannot go on.

The issue of transparency and accountability in the work undertaken by these staff is critical to the trust and integrity that Australians have in our immigration and humanitarian programs. That is why this bill is so important, in that it tangibly means that individuals who've been involved in Australia's offshore detention system in any way—contractors, social workers, psychologists, departmental staff, doctors; you name it—will be able to speak more freely about their experiences and what they've seen with less fear of prosecution.

In winding back the government's total suppression of so-called whistleblowers and staff speaking out on Australia's offshore detention regime, this bill is a good thing. It does highlight why independent monitoring is so important. The chairperson of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, Sir Malcolm Evans, said:

This is why we think independent monitoring is so important—transparency is one of the greatest protections here. Where there's a lack of transparency, naturally there will be concerns things are not as they ought.

It pretty much is common sense. Hiding or shrouding a practice in secrecy means there must be something that the government wants to hide in the first place.

There have been a number of parts of civil society that have led to the government having to back down in its policy of secrecy, and I would like to acknowledge them. I would like to acknowledge the work of Save the Children in particular for originally speaking out; the work of Guardian Australia in the release of the Nauru files; the ongoing important work of the UNHCR; and, indeed, other parts of community and society, like Doctors for Refugees, the Refugee Council of Australia and so many other NGOs working every day to help rebuild the lives of refugees—people who have already suffered enough.

Finally, I would like to recognise that there is critical work going on not just in those particular facilities but also here in Australia for those who have been deemed refugees, have refugee status and have been able to settle. They are members of our community who work each day, who volunteer, to make sure that we as a country put humanity first and act humanely to ensure that people can rebuild their lives after fleeing persecution and after the suffering that they've endured.

I want Australia to be recognised as a welcoming, humane country for those people right now and also into the future. The only way that can happen is if this sad and sorry chapter of the last four years comes to an end for those who have been trapped on Manus Island and Nauru without any hope or any future in sight for settlement. It is a failure of this government that they have not settled these asylum seekers and refugees—shame on them. It's time that this ends. Let's hope this bill is only the beginning of that becoming a reality.


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