The recently introduced Border Force Act has some darkly disturbing implications for those who work with children in Australia’s immigration detention centres.
Those centres are in Nauru, Manus Island or at Villawood in Sydney’s west. Such workers, including teachers, are now forbidden under threat of two years jail from revealing or reporting any information they come across in the course of their work.
These provisions are contained in Section 42 of the Act, which is ominously headed “secrecy”. There are very limited circumstances where disclosing some information to certain authorities may be exempt, however it is clear that a primary purpose of the Act is to supress public access to information.
At face value these provisions are contradictory to the legal requirement for teachers, nurses and other caregivers to mandatory report reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect.
Notable barrister Julian Burnside has commented that the real intent is not to lock people up but to shut them up. That is, to intimidate individuals and to make them fearful, causing confusion and making people second guess their obligations and responsibilities. This is hardly an atmosphere conducive to child protection.
The provisions of this Act send a mixed message to the community in respect of reporting and revealing serious concerns about mistreatment, particularly of children. It is alarming that the Federal Government, with the support of the Labor opposition, are willing to champion laws designed to suppress access to evidence and public scrutiny.
No past protection
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse has demonstrated beyond doubt that children in this country have not been properly protected from physical or sexual assault or neglect by the legislation, policy or processes that have operated in the past.
Every state and territory now has laws requiring teachers (among others) to mandatorily report instances of abuse or neglect suspicion of it. In NSW doctors have been required to report to authorities cases of abuse since 1977. Ten years later this was broadened to include nurses and teachers and much stronger reporting obligations by legislation introduced following the recommendation of the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption in 1997.
Reports not investigated
Despite all this, instances of abuse have continued and even when reported to higher authorities there is significant evidence that those reports were not properly investigated or acted on. Has the Government learned nothing from the Royal Commission?
Good laws should demand and stipulate clearly the process for reporting mistreatment, neglect and abuse of children and the authority to which they should be reported. Good laws also provide for meaningful feedback to the reporter of what investigation or action will be taken on their information.
Good laws allow for freedom of speech and public disclosure where there are cover-ups, concealment, suppression or incompetent investigations resulting in a whitewash.
The Border Force Act is not good law.