Dec 7, 2015

Migration Amendment (Mandatory Reporting) Bill 2015

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:53): I am pleased to be seconding this important bill, the Migration Amendment (Mandatory Reporting) Bill 2015, which makes it mandatory for people working in Australian operated immigration detention facilities to report cases of child sexual abuse that come to their attention.

Let me start by congratulating my friend the member for Corio for introducing this legislation. Like everyone in this House, the member for Corio understands that no society can consider itself civilised if it does not do everything in its power to protect children. Indeed, as Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Governing nations is a complex task and it is not always possible to satisfy all opinion when making decisions, but when it comes to protecting children there should be no differences of opinion. We should all start from the position that protecting children is a core responsibility of legislators, just as it is a core responsibility for all of us if we see abuse in our own communities.

This bill relates specifically to concerns about whether staff in Australian offshore detention centres might be breaking the law if they report evidence of abuse to authorities. In a recent debate, the Greens political party put forward an amendment that would guarantee mandatory reporting of abuse. It failed because the amendment had little to do with the actual bill. The debate coincided with the commencement from 1 July of the Australian Border Force Act and the introduction of strict secrecy and disclosure provisions for all immigration and border force staff, including tough penalties for noncompliance.

As a result of media coverage of these events, some members of the public became concerned about whether workers in detention centres could be prevented from reporting abuse. Last month health professionals held a rally at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne to call for the removal of all children from immigration detention the day before the member for Corio presented this bill. Labor believes that workers in detention centres who report cases of abuse are already protected under whistleblower legislation protections put in place by the former Labor government. That position is consistent with independent advice obtained by the opposition. It is important, however, that we respond to public concern. Given the duty we have to protect children in our care there is no room for even the smallest shadow of a doubt on this matter—hence why this bill is being brought forward.

The legislation requires any Department of Immigration and Border Protection staff member, contractor or subcontractor who witnesses physical or sexual abuse of a child to report it to the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force. If they fail to report it they will be committing an offence. The commissioner in turn would be required to report it to the relevant authority, whether that be state or territory police or the Australian Federal Police. The commissioner would also be required to keep written records of the reports received.

The fact that we are even talking about these issues is evidence of the need to redouble our efforts to get children out of detention in our offshore processing centres. Labor supports every move to continue the work that started under the former Labor government to move children and their families out of detention and into the community at the earliest opportunity—subject to national security issues and the welfare of the children concerned.

The government has now been in office for more than two years. Regrettably, too much of its activity has focused on seeking political victories, rather than processing claims for refugee status. People living on Nauru, for example, are still living in tents and basic medical facilities on Manus Island have been inadequate. A major concern about the treatment of asylum seekers is the government’s obsessive secrecy. If authorities are using public money to take actions in Australia’s name there must be transparency over their activities. The excuse of on-water operations was used again by the new Prime Minister as recently as last Friday. It is that sort of secrecy that has, in part, led to the need for the legislation before us. If the Australian public are denied details of the way in which asylum seekers are being treated it is no wonder that they find it difficult to believe assurances from the government that rights are being protected.

For many years Australians have watched the issue of asylum seekers and people smuggling unfolding day after day in news bulletins. Wherever people stand on this issue, there is broad understanding of the arguments at play. When a government suddenly decides its own citizens do not deserve to know the facts about how these matters are being handled it is no wonder people become cynical. The secrecy should end. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.