Relaxation of dangerous secrecy laws in Border Force Act is welcome

14th Aug 2017

The Commonwealth’s move to amend the Border Force Act by removing outrageous secrecy provisions for detention camp employees is a welcome but overdue move, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

Secrecy laws in the Australian Border Force (ABF) Act threatened a two-year prison sentence for anyone working in an Australian immigration detention facility, either on the mainland or overseas, if they talked about what they saw at work.

ALA National President Laura Neil welcomed the amendments to the ABF Act, saying the secrecy provisions had posed serious constitutional questions which were currently being challenged in the High Court.

“The ALA welcomes the removal of these draconian secrecy provisions in the Border Force Act, which we have been calling for since they were introduced in 2015,” Mrs Neil said.  “They were unnecessary, undermined democratic accountability and were likely to have been unconstitutional.”

“These secrecy laws were potentially incredibly dangerous,” Mrs Neil said. “Advocacy group Doctors 4 Refugees challenged them in the High Court because they believed the gag provisions undermined their ability to care for the physical and mental health of detainees.”

“Too many times we have seen the tragic outcomes that are all too common in offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea,” Mrs Neil said. “Medical staff were put in an impossible position when these secrecy laws threatened them with prison if they met their professional responsibilities and reported what they saw.

“The government recognised this last year when it exempted medical professionals from the secrecy provisions,” Mrs Neil said. “Now the Commonwealth has bowed to inevitability by restricting secrecy requirements to circumstances that could harm the national interest.”

Mrs Neil said that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Migrants, François Crépeau, had initially cancelled his visit to Australia due to concerns that the secrecy provisions in the ABF Act would undermine his ability to investigate conditions in immigration detention.

“Democracy relies on all of us being able to speak freely about what our government does,” Mrs Neil said. “After all, what goes on in detention centres is done in our name, by our government, with our tax dollars. We have a right to know what is being done in our name. Gagging anyone from speaking about their work is disturbing. When it undermines accountability, it’s unacceptable.”

“Imposing gag laws on those who might speak out to help people who have been mistreated in government-run detention centres was outrageous,” Mrs Neil said.

Mrs Neil said the ALA hoped the government would provide justice to any detainees left in limbo following the closure of offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, and bring them to the Australian mainland.

Tags: Access to justice