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Detention whistleblowers with ‘legitimate’ concerns have nothing to fear – Dutton

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has tried to hose down concerns doctors could face two years imprisonment for speaking out about shortcomings in the health care of detained asylum seekers under controversial new laws that came into effect on 1 July.

In a statement issued earlier today, Mr Dutton said the new Australian Border Force 2015 Act would “not restrict anyone’s ability to raise genuine concerns about conditions in detention, should they wish to do so through appropriate channels”.

Critics, including leading medical practitioners and barristers, have complained the laws, which threaten all detention centre staff – including health workers – with imprisonment for any unauthorised disclosure of information, target whistleblowers and will further deepen the secrecy surrounding the operation of immigration detention centres.

The AMA and other medical groups have called for an amendment to the law to explicitly protect health workers and allow them to advocate on behalf of their patients.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler said an Australian Human Rights Commission documenting cases of child sexual abuse at Australian-run detention centres demonstrated the need for greater transparency in their operation.

“One of the problems that we’ve got here is an issue of transparency. I think there are a lot of people, particularly doctors, that have been very concerned about the provision of health care.

“The standard of health care, particularly in offshore centres such as Nauru and Manus Island, is well below that we would expect on the mainland, and I think having some sort of independent health group as there used to be, indeed, to actually oversee that and provide some sort of transparency, that gives the Australian people the reassurance that we’re actually fulfilling at least the obligations of providing good health care to people that are in detention, is something that we really want to carry through.”

Dr Ai-Lene Chan, a GP who worked at the Nauru detention centre, together with colleagues Dr Peter Young and Dr David Isaacs, has warned that the new laws place doctors working in detention centres in an increasingly invidious position.

“The restrictions placed on doctors working in immigration detention results in health care that cannot be consistent with Australian codes and clinical standards,” the doctors said, noting that pathology tests frequently go missing, IT communications are regularly disrupted and the supply of medicines is underdeveloped.

The doctors warned that the Australian Border Force 2015 Act would only serve to compromise care even further.

It said the restrictions it put in place would fundamentally compromise vital aspects practice like sharing clinical information and research, and engaging in professional discussion.

“The Australian Border Force Act directly challenges professional codes of ethical conduct, including the safeguard of clinical independence and professional integrity from demands of third parties and governments,” they wrote. “The legislation aims to silence health professionals and others who advocate for their patients.”

But Mr Dutton said claims the Government wanted to gag whistleblowers with “legitimate” concerns were wrong.

“Any person who makes a public interest disclosure, as defined within the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, will not be subject to any criminal prosecution under the ABF Act,” the Minister said. “While the Government will take action to protect operationally sensitive information, such as personal information or information which compromises the operational effectiveness or response of our officers, the airing of general claims about conditions in immigration facilities will not breach the ABF Act.”

Mr Dutton said the Australian Border Force would investigate leaks of “operationally sensitive” information, but added “the public can be assured that it will not prevent people from speaking out about conditions in immigration detention facilities”.

Adrian Rollins