Detention centre workers will no longer face the threat of imprisonment for revealing abuses against asylum seekers - except in rare cases where security is at risk - if amendments to the Border Force Act are passed.
The Turnbull Government has moved to significantly loosen secrecy laws that made it a criminal offence for teachers, social workers, cleaners and security guards working in Australian immigration detention centres to blow the whistle on alleged abuses of asylum seekers.
The amendments to the Border Force Act were introduced by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton last Wednesday, in a move advocates consider an attempt to avoid a High Court challenge.
If the reforms pass, frontline staff working in detention centres will no longer be threatened with two years’ imprisonment for revealing information about asylum seekers, unless the release of the information threatens national security, defence or criminal investigations.
The change will help end the “culture of secrecy” in detention centres and will mean “a lot more people” will be able to report neglect and assaults they see, according to Dr Barri Phatarfod, the head of Doctors for Refugees.
Dr Phatarfod’s organisation is spearheading a High Court challenge to the original law, along with the Fitzroy Legal Centre.
The Immigration Minister said the reforms were to “clarify” the meaning of the act, but Dr Phatarfod said the amendment was “no coincidence” and a clear attempt to head off the constitutional challenge.
“It’s a massive reframing of the secrecy provisions of the law. If it was only a clarification, this would have happened well over a year ago,” Dr Phatarfod said.
The government has already made one amendment the act, originally written in 2015 under the Abbott Government.
In October 2016, the government introduced an exemption for healthcare workers.
But the refugee advocates decided to continue their challenge, claiming the legal threat to other workers who had regular contact with asylum seekers was still too great.
Dr Phatarfod said there were many social workers and teachers who would have reported alleged mistreatment if they were not afraid of facing charges.
“A number of people brought instances to us … and they’ve just said: ‘Look, I’m just too scared, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got children and I don’t really want to risk facing two years in jail’,” she said.
She said the High Court challenge contained testimony from many such would-be whistleblowers, and suggested that evidence was critical in forcing the government to change the law.
Announcing the reforms in parliament, Mr Dutton said the changes were to “clarify the intent” of the original law and “provide the necessary certainty, that only information which could harm the national or public interest if disclosed, is to be protected”.
The amendment would also apply retrospectively, protecting anyone reporting information from the past two years.
Greens senator Nick McKim described the move as a “humiliating backdown not only for Peter Dutton but for [Malcolm] Turnbull,” speaking with ABC Radio.
“And I've got no doubt that this is being done for the same reason that they relaxed restrictions on doctors last year, and that is they know it won't stand up in the High Court.”
Dr Phatarfod said no decision had been made on whether to drop the challenge, but said her current legal advice was that the changes would address the bulk of the advocates’ concerns.