DURING the Senate debate on the Australian Border Force Act, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, in strongly objecting to the proposal to criminalise “unapproved” statements by people such as doctors, nurses, other health professionals, teachers and child protection officers working in immigration detention centres said: “You have to wonder why the Labor Party is not jumping up and down” about the proposals.
And, indeed, one does wonder. Senator Hanson-Young speaks for me in opposing this appalling new attempt by the Federal Parliament to hide the impacts on asylum seekers of indefinite detention.
In fact, the Greens are, these days, the only members of the Parliament who reflect my views on asylum seeker policy or, indeed, what I understand to be the true values and beliefs of the ALP.
When I heard of the passage of the Border Force Act, I wrote to a friend seeking assurance that it was passed without ALP support but was sadly disillusioned when told it would not have passed but for ALP support.
I find it almost impossible to understand why the ALP decided to support this law. It has been denounced by doctors, lawyers, nurses, health professionals and indeed anyone with a commitment to openness and transparency in government administration.
I would have thought the excruciating evidence before the Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse would have given the Parliament and for me as a member of the ALP and my colleagues in the Labor Party pause for serious thought before agreeing to lower the shades on the management of immigration detention centres.
The Australian response to abuse of children has led to the development of an extensive and rigorous regime, including mandatory reporting. There is currently also in Australia, including here in the ACT, a long overdue and continuing debate about domestic violence and the awful toll it has on women and children.
It is accepted that the insidious evil of violence against women and children in the home, and the abuse of children in institutions and the community, flourished and continues precisely because it is and was perpetrated out of sight and in private places.
Surely the criminalisation of comment by people committed to the health and welfare of innocent, vulnerable people including children detained indefinitely by the State in closed, remote and isolated immigration detention centres reveals an appalling double standard and flies in the face of our commitment to mandatory reporting and the determination to confront and deal with domestic violence.
The president of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, Dr Nicholas Talley, has said in relation to the law: “The evidence from Australia’s immigration detention centres is in. They seriously and irrefutably harm the health of children and adults who have sought our protection.
“Refugees and asylum seekers have complex needs as patients. Our immigration detention policy takes these needs and exacerbates them.
“As doctors, the public relies on us to examine and reflect on what is best for our patients, and to speak up about any barriers to their best possible care.
“I am appalled by this new law which will actively hinder us from speaking the truth about harms inflicted on our patients. Urgent amendments must be passed… to allow doctors their full rights to advocate without threat of imprisonment.”
This new law is, I think, so horribly flawed that I have wondered whether Labor Party support for it was a mistake or an oversight on its part. Is it possible perhaps that no one in the Labor caucus got around to reading the Bill before the caucus decided to simply wave it through?
However, I see that Andrew Leigh, the member for Fraser, in his July electorate newsletter has, consistent with the ALP’s matey bipartisanship on all things immigration, dismissed the concerns of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and others and jumped to the defence of the Border Force Act.
He rationalises his support for the new criminal offence by asserting that if (say) a doctor or someone working for Save the Children is actually arrested and charged for speaking out about something of concern to them they can always attempt to defend themselves by falling back on whistleblower protections.
I doubt Andrew’s advice will be of much comfort to any doctor actually arrested and charged. This law is truly dreadful. It cannot be defended or justified and should be repealed.
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.