Australian Border Force’s culture of secrecy is harming more than just refugees. It’s also damaging our democracy, writes Lexi Lachal from Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project.
In the midst of a High Court challenge to the Border Force Act, the federal government has backed down over its controversial secrecy provisions. Last week it introduced changes to substantially water down provisions that threaten two-year jail terms to workers in offshore detention centres who speak out about abuses they witness.
When introduced in 2015, the Border Force Act made it an offence for workers in offshore detention centres to disclose any information whatsoever that they obtained as a consequence of their job.
The proposed changes will narrow the offence so workers are only prosecuted if they disclose specific types of information, for example, if the disclosure could prejudice national security. The government says the new scope of the definition is based on the harm that could be caused by disclosure of the information.
The proposed changes represent a dramatic weakening of the provisions and provide much needed clarity to those affected. It is clear however, these changes have only been offered up by the government in the face of scrutiny from the High Court.
These changes are welcome, but they are not the panacea for this insidious culture of secrecy.
Last year Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project released an in-depth report which found that those wanting to speak out about abuses within the immigration system not only faced insurmountable legal barriers, such as the Border Force Act, but cultural and practical barriers too.
Policy decisions over the last few years which have seen the militarisation of border protection and restriction of the dissemination of information have created a pervasive culture of secrecy. The fact that the government has outsourced the operation of our processing facilities to remote countries and restricted access by the media has only worked to perpetuate this.
Seven people have died since 2014 under Australia’s care on Manus Island or Nauru, according to the Australian Border Deaths Database maintained by Monash University.
Countless more have been injured or sexually assaulted.
This is happening in our name. When Reza Barati was killed during a riot on Manus Island in 2014, the Immigration Department claimed that Barati had brought his death upon himself by trying to escape. This was untrue.
When bullets were fired into the Manus Island detention centre during a riot on Good Friday this year, immigration minister Peter Dutton said the assault had occurred because a local five-year-old boy was being lured in by detainees. This was also untrue.
The culture of secrecy is not just due to legal restrictions on people, it is encouraged and perpetuated by the broader ethos of our government’s policies.
The pervasive culture of secrecy is harmful. It is harmful to the people in our care who are hidden from public view. More broadly though, it is harmful to our democracy.
An informed public is a cornerstone to our democracy. We, as Australians, need to have the information to make judgements about our government’s policies.
Repealing draconian legislation is a good start, but our government needs to go further to encourage transparency and accountability in our immigration system.