The space to be who we are and become who we want to be as a nation

Australia’s brand new shining piece of legislation – Australian Border Force Act 2015. It is, as the Liberal and Labour Parties and Sky News would say, what the majority of people in Australia voted for. It combines customs, immigration and border protection under one department and commissioner with a great deal of power and a great deal less judicial oversight. Certain provisions of the Act, if appropriately implemented and regulated, could mean that individuals working in borders and immigration might actually be qualified for the tasks they are employed to do – a boon given that in the past Australian contractors have been employed in detention centres to deal with victims of war, trauma and rape with no formal qualifications or a Certificate II in Security. But then the Act defines secrecy and disclosure provisions not just for individuals working at sea but also for those managing and working with asylum seekers. Disclosure of information outside the provisions of the legislation may result in two years imprisonment. Criticisms of the Act include that: doctors, nurses and teachers who go public about inadequate management of abuses in detention centres may face two years imprisonment; guards and security forces could potentially beat asylum seekers to death with impunity.

The Act states that:

Immigration and Border Protection workers will make decisions that affect the safety, rights and freedoms of individuals as well as trade and commerce in Australia.  They will hold a privileged place at the border and in the community, with access to secure environments and law enforcement databases.  They will also exercise significant powers under the Customs Act 1901 , Migration Act 1958 and Maritime Powers Act 2012 and other Commonwealth law, such as detention, arrest, boarding a vessel, entry, search, questioning, seizure, use of force and removal from Australia.  The community and government trust Immigration and Border Protection workers to exercise these powers reasonably, lawfully, impartially and professionally.

The Bill, therefore, contains a number of integrity provisions to increase resistance to criminal infiltration and corruption and to enhance government and public confidence in Immigration and Border Protection workers, as well as the confidence of other partners including intelligence organisations and foreign governments. The Bill also includes provisions that enable the setting of standards for a highly trained, disciplined and flexible workforce.

Australia’s choices to date in how it manages its borders and those individuals who choose to enter them have resulted in:

The above events came into public scrutiny due to journalism, whistleblowing, senate inquiries and lobbying. Are these the actions of government and industry that deserve trust and confidence? Or these?

The government’s commitment to secrecy should be a concern for everyone. Secrecy is completely inadequate for democracy but totally appropriate for tyranny. If the minister will not inform the public, then we are within our right to assume the worst. No free and fair nation operates with secrecy as a blanket policy position. Democracies are based on the foundation of public scrutiny and open government.

Malcom Fraser

If, “in short, our border creates the space where we can be who we are and become who we want to be as a nation,” we should not keep what happens in that space a secret.

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