Local, Independant and Effective

Local refugee advocates praised for speaking up

Posted September 11, 2017


Cathy has praised Rural Australians for Refugees and others in Indi who have consistently spoken up for more humane treatment of asylum seekers. Cathy's speech followed the government's proposed amendments to the act to allow for lawful disclosure of information in the public interest in Australia.

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (17:22):  I welcome the comments from the member for Macquarie and thank her for the work that she is doing in this parliament. The purpose of the Australian Border Force Amendment (Protected Information) Bill 2017 is to introduce amendments to the 2015 Australian Border Force Act, legislation that sought to stop the unauthorised disclosure of information that could harm the national or public interest.

I support this bill. The minister and, in turn, the government are showing that they are listening to the concerns raised by the community and by professionals working in the sector. And they have responded in a positive way to those concerns by addressing the problems raised. I acknowledge the work of the government in doing this and say thank you.

However, there are still problem areas, and I ask the minister and the government to bring this same approach to the issues raised in a number of submissions made to the recent Senate inquiry. These issues include that the power to make a legislative instrument should rest with the minister, rather than with the department secretary. I understand that we'll have an amendment to that effect shortly. I note that the government is this afternoon circulating further amendments to the bill, and that these amendments will provide for the minister to make this legislative amendment: I acknowledge that.

There are other recommendations that new provisions and powers introduced in the bill could be used in a way that negates this purpose of distinguishing between information that does or does not need to be kept secret. There is also a provision for an external or independent arbitrator for complaints and breaches of offshore and onshore operations. Later in this speech I will share with this parliament some of the emails from my constituents responding to the pending closure of the regional processing centre in Manus Island in October, and particularly in response to the government's announcement of new visa conditions for those asylum seekers who have been brought to Australia and have been living in the community.

But first I would like to talk briefly to some of the work of Save the Children Australia. They made a number of submissions to the inquiry. Save the Children consider this bill a step in the right direction in decriminalising certain public interest disclosures pertaining to immigration regulation. Save the Children was contracted by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection from August 2013 to October 2015 to provide education, recreation, child protection and welfare services to asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru. In the course of providing these services, Save the Children and its employees were subject to the Australian Border Force Act as well as other legislation, such as section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, that criminalise certain disclosures by those contracted to government.

Save the Children Australia welcomes proposed amendments to the act to allow for lawful disclosure of information in the public interest in Australia. It says it is appropriate for the government to extend confidentiality requirements to organisations contracted to provide services on its behalf. It notes the need for a careful balance between the maintenance of confidential information on the one hand and disclosures where the public interest demand it on the other.

Save the Children Australia's note of caution is that the bill introduces some new powers and provisions that could be used in a way that negates their stated purpose of distinguishing between information that does and does not need to be kept secret for legitimate governmental reasons. In particular, it says the delegation of power to the departmental secretary to make an instrument should rest with the minister instead. It argues this broad discretion should be used to prevent the lawful disclosure of a wide range of information, so I welcome the minister's attention to that.

I also refer to the submission made by Rural Australians for Refugees—RAR. Rural Australians for Refugees is a network of groups. They describe themselves as 'everyday people throughout regional Australia aiming to bring about change to the way Australia treats refugees and those seeking asylum'. RAR was formed in 2001 and currently consists of more than 70 groups across all the states and territories. Groups develop activities that suit the strengths of their members and their communities. Some are focused on providing support to newly arrived refugees, as the member for Macquarie has just outlined. Some have chosen community education and awareness programs, while others advocate their concerns to government and the public. Many of the groups do all three.

The RAR national president, Marie Sellstrom, is from Mansfield in my electorate. Indeed, there is a strong connection between Indi and the RAR national executive, with the vice president, Ruth Fluhr, coming from the Strathbogie Tableland in North-East Victoria and the secretary, Penny Egan-Vine, coming from Albury-Wodonga. I meet with representatives from local RAR branches and associated networks in Indi on a regular basis, including the convenor of the north-east refugee support network, Freida Andrews, of Benalla, and I thank them all for their ongoing work and representations to my office on behalf of their communities. They are a voice of conscience in my electorate. They call for better communication from the government and immigration authorities. They call for mercy for those who find themselves in such an untenable situation as to need to ask for asylum.

Network members will make a visit to Canberra later this year to plead their case for the support of refugees, and discuss how regional communities can provide their support. I also note that executive members of Rural Australians for Refugees will be in Canberra at Parliament House later this week, and I will be meeting with Marie Sellstrom and RAR national treasurer, Margaret Rasa, on Wednesday morning.

Since its inception, RAR members have been increasingly concerned about what they perceive to be a retraction and diminution of accountability by government in the operation of refugees and asylum policies. They note that over the past 15 years members' legitimate questions have been ignored or met with obstruction and/or outright obfuscation in the name of 'security' or 'privacy' or 'client confidentiality' or 'commercial in confidence'. RAR members have also noted an unwillingness on the part of government to account to taxpayers and the ongoing lack of transparency in response to legitimate questions about the conduct and the costs of private contractors. Why do legitimate questions and attempts to obtain information and access sometimes meet with attack?

RAR says it fully supports the need for special and heightened arrangements to protect Australia's security; however, it does not support the merging of security and secrecy as a means of avoiding security of routine and non-sensitive operational and administrative arrangements. RAR argues that the same standards of accountability that apply generally to the government within our democracy should apply to the operations of refugee and asylum policy.

RAR welcomes the government's amendments to the Australian Border Force Act that it says will remove elements unduly constraining democratic access. RAR seeks a strong amendment that would objectively and specifically support improved capacity for external security of Border Force operations. It suggests specific provision for an external and independent arbitrator for complaints and breaches about the onshore and offshore operations conducted by the Australian Border Force. RAR also calls for the removal of the special clause providing protection of commercial interests, believing this consideration is unnecessary and instead may lead to perceptions that Border Force operations belong outside of or above normal government commercial arrangements.

I join with both Save the Children and RAR in supporting the amendments before the House tonight. I welcome greater transparency and accountability in an area that, for too long, has been shrouded in secrecy. It is this secrecy and the lack of information about the treatment of asylum seekers that my constituents find so distressing—and, as a member of parliament, I too find it distressing. I have spoken previously about how important our laws are, but equally important is recognition that we are a compassionate nation and that we show mercy to those in the most dire of circumstances. Tonight, I call upon the government to show this mercy to the most vulnerable asylum seekers caught up in the crackdown on those who have been brought to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru. The government tells us this is a simple policy designed to stop government payments going to those who don't need them. It says these individuals, assessed on a case-by-case basis by the department, are now on a final departure bridging visa with work rights. I am told it applies only to those well enough to live in the community. But I have had dozens—more than dozens—of emails from constituents who say these asylum seekers and refugees face increasing despair and destitution, as the government attempts to force them back to Manus, Nauru or where they have fled from.

I continue to receive feedback from constituents concerned about the closure of Manus Island's regional processing centre at the end of October. To bring one particular example to light, Jill Morton of Bright, who visited Manus and Port Moresby in March, writes: 'Someone needs to stop Australia from dumping these men in PNG. It has become much more unsafe.' She also refers to the recent visit by Senator Nick McKim and his social media post highlighting the growing number of detainees being transferred from Manus Island to Port Moresby with the understanding that they will not be returned to the detention centre and will be stuck in Port Moresby.

Two of my constituents are regular visitors to those detained at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation at Broadmeadows. I specifically refer to Marg and Delfina. They have recently taken fresh fruit to detainees—fresh fruit. From today, 11 September, a new set of guidelines prohibits this. The department says the new rules aim to reduce the risk associated with visitors bringing in food that could compromise safety, security and good order of the immigration facilities. Food must be commercially packaged. It must be consumed during the visiting period and any leftover food must be disposed of at the end of the visit. No-one disagrees with the need for rules, but surely those rules are absolutely extreme. My constituent Marg asks: 'Why is this being done? It appears to be another cruel twist in how these people are being treated.' I agree. I ask the government representative at the table to particularly investigate those rules, follow them through and see if we can do something about making sure fresh food is able to be eaten, distributed and kept.

I am heartened, I have to say, by a response in my electorate from the work of the Northern Victoria Refugee Support Network, who have prepared a submission to the inquiry into regional development and decentralisation. They provide arguments, supported by evidence, for decentralising detention, establishing processing centres in rural and regional Australia, developing a coordinated control agency at a statewide level, locating it in a region or a regional area, and successfully integrating refugee communities into rural and regional areas. There's such willingness, there's such a want, and there are such good case studies of refugees coming to rural and regional Australia.

I look forward to continuing to see my community putting their hands up to be part of the solution, and I will not let this issue go. My community will not allow me to let it go. We need to do better, and we must do better. Time is of the essence. I am very pleased that this legislation shows the government has the capacity to change and to do things better. My constituents are telling me that parliament must show leadership. We must represent our regional and rural communities around Australia, and we must bring to parliament their voices, saying: 'Can we demonstrate compassion and support? Can we show how refugee communities can be successfully integrated to build stronger, more resilient communities, particularly in rural areas?'

In closing, I will continue to advocate for a compassionate and sustainable response by this parliament. In November last year I brought a similar speech to a conclusion by quoting Pope Francis, who noted, 'Frightened citizens build walls on one side and exclude people on the other.' This is not the time for fear and punishment. It is the time for mercy, courage and justice.

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