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God, Australia’s Border Force and Medical Ethics

“It’s a gag law. It seems to me it contradicts The Hippocratic Oath of medicos not to be able to report on the welfare of their patients. It’s unbelievable in the 21st century.”

– Nicholas O’Dwyer, Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 11, 2015.

It seemed that the border Stasi had gone back into business. There were the uniforms. There were the militarised personnel. This was Australia’s new Border Protection Force, established under the Border Force Act. It merges a range of departments connected with customs, border protection and immigration. Its targets are not an invasive force armed to the teeth, or clandestine criminals operating with impunity. Their targets constitute, rather, men, women and children fleeing areas afflicted by indigence and war.

It even came with a blessing from the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who had momentarily forgotten that fine line between church and state. Onward, these Christian soldiers were to march, to do a Christian’s bidding against the enemy.

The Border Protection Act has a few prominent nasties targeting those who wish to disclose details of the gulag system that has taken shape on Manus Island and Nauru. Abuse of detainees, if disclosed for broader discussion, can land the discloser in prison for up to 2 years. There is a lightly worded proviso to this: that nurses and doctors can, in certain cases, disclose material, albeit with the gracious consent of the Australian Border Force.

The thrust of the provisions lie in not disclosing what constitutes “protected information,” thereby cutting off channels of discussion connected to offshore detention camps. This has been the Abbott government’s crowning motivation: to identify, restrict and eliminate, to the greatest extent possible, discussion about camp conditions, and the entire anti-asylum policy at sea.

Given the absence of adequate child protection frameworks; a general lack of protections for detainees; and Canberra’s continuing defiance of key provisions of the Refugee Convention, the BFA proves entirely consistent. The teeth in the legislation lies in granting considerable discretion to the immigration department secretary, first on what constitutes that protected information and secondly, who it can be applied to.

Disconcertingly, even the ministers don’t seem to understand where the whistleblowing protections fit. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claims that Australia’s meek Public Interest Disclosure Act would provide exemptions, provided, naturally, that these were made via the “appropriate channels”. (The nub here is always appropriateness.)

The newly appointed Australian Border Force commissioner, who did the rounds on national television looking like dated soft furnishings, came up with that trusty canard on protecting national security and Australia’s sacred sovereignty. “This is about the leaking of classified information that can compromise operational security or our sovereignty,” suggested Roman Quaedvlieg, “it’s not about people having a right to be outspoken in the community about a range of things” (Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 11).

Even Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and crossbencher complicit in the passage of the BFA, had grand delusions that whistleblower protections would still apply across the entire public service (Q&A, Jul 6).

Even Greg Sheridan of The Australian, never exactly a bosom friend of transparent policy, would concede on the ABC that, “Protected information and a designated person cannot go public in the normal course of things under whistleblower legislation.”

Health and humanitarian workers have expressed their concerns, and their defiance, in an open letter to Abbott. “We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.”

There have also been rallies by doctors against the BFA, fearing the creeping hands of totalitarianism. On Saturday, medics gathered before Sydney Town Hall keen to emphasise how the Act’s provisions flew in the face of basic medical ethics. The organiser of that event, the University of Sydney’s Maria Fiatarone Singh, put forth a question that officials in Canberra have struggled to answer: “How does reporting that a child has been raped by a guard or exchanged sexual favours for food threaten national security?”

The whole point, more relevantly, is that the entire system of detention is premised on punishment and deterrence. Its entire argot is based on the fiction of humanitarian salvation, while inwardly, cruelty is its medium. By all means, attempt to come to Australia, but this is what you get: conditions rife with sexual abuse, psychiatric distress and desperation. And camp guards essentially acting with impunity.

Prominent figures such as Dr. Peter Young, the chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers for three years via International Health and Medical Services, spoke last year about an “inherently toxic” environment that had been engendered by a system calculated to cause mental degradation. There is little doubt that Australia’s new border force will be very interested in keeping such views under wraps, punitively or otherwise.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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