On 20 May 2015, the Australian Parliament passed the Australian Border Force Act.  The Act  came into force until 1 July 2015.

It includes secrecy provisions which have potentially very far-reaching consequences, but it is to be hoped that these provisions will be read down.  What is really alarming about the Australian Border Force Act is that it shows the willingness of the government to suppress the facts connected with its brutal mistreatment of asylum seekers.  I think the attempt will fail, but it should not have been made in the first place.  It is of a piece with Tony Abbott’s response to Q & A allowing a question from Zaky Mallah to go to air: instead of regretting an error of judgment, he asked “Whose side is ABC on?”.  Abbott appears to think that the best way to deal with the world is to ignore facts which contradict your view of it.

Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act makes it an offence (punishable by 2 years’ imprisonment) for an “entrusted person” to “make a record of, or disclose” protected information.

Entrusted person” is widely defined, to include various officials in the Border Force, as well as officers of the Migration Department. This includes people who are “Immigration and Border Protection workers”. That class is defined as including people who have been designated by the Minister, as a class, to be officers. On 27 November 2003 the then Minister designated in writing employees of various service providers to be officers.

Accordingly, an employee of a detention centre service provider is, by definition, within the definition of “officer” in subsection 5(1) of the Migration Act 1958 and is therefore within the definition of “entrusted person” in the Border Force Act.

The restriction in section 42 is modified by a series of exceptions in sections 43 to 49. Most of those exceptions are not presently relevant. However the exceptions include these:

  • disclosure to an authorised person for a purpose relating to the protection of public health, or the prevention or elimination of risks to the life or safety of an individual or a group of individuals; (s. 44 & s. 45 in conjunction with s. 46(d))
  • disclosure to an authorised person for the provision of services to persons who are not Australian citizens; (s. 44 & s. 45 in conjunction with s. 46(j))
  • section 48 has arguably the most important exception:

“48 Disclosure to reduce threat to life or health

An entrusted person may disclose protected information if:

(a)       the entrusted person reasonably believes that the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of an individual; and

(b)       the disclosure is for the purposes of preventing or lessening that threat.”

In my opinion, if a health worker learned facts while employed by a service provider in detention and genuinely believed, on reasonable grounds, that those facts  represented a serious threat to the life or health of one or more asylum seekers, and, that disclosing those facts might help prevent or lessen that threat, the disclosure would not constitute an offence.

Similarly, if any other employee of a detention centre operator formed the same belief, and disclosed the facts believing that disclosing them might help prevent or lessen that threat, the disclosure would not constitute an offence.

It is not clear from the Act whether disclosure is prohibited of facts learned before the Act came into force but disclosed after the Act comes into force. The normal principle against retrospective criminal laws tends to the result that the Act would not apply in those circumstances, but it is not clear.

Two practical matters remain. First, the Act came into force on 1 July. Disclosure before then cannot be a breach of the Act.

Second, whether a prosecution would be brought in any particular case is hard to guess. If the disclosure was such as to attract a possible defence under section 48, a government acting sensibly would recognise that a prosecution would provide an opportunity for the accused to explain – in the very public forum of court proceedings – exactly what is going on inside detention centres and why those things present a serious threat to the life or health of an individual (or individuals) in detention.

The defence under section 48 is important.  It is arguably more powerful than normal whistle-blower defences.  The most disturbing thing about the Australian Border Force Act is its apparent attempt to hide the iniquities which are happening in immigration detention, on-shore and off-shore.

Shameful things are being done in our name, on out taxes and Australia’s reputation internationally is being degraded rapidly.  The only favourable thing which hass been said about Australia’s policy in relation to asylum seekers was said by Katie Hopkins in the London Sun a few months ago.  Her compliment was diminished by the fact that she referred to boat people as “vermin” and “cockroaches”.  I would prefer Australia not to have the good opinion of someone who thinks like that.