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Whistleblower doctors face jail threat from today

Controversial laws under which doctors could face two years imprisonment for speaking out about shortcomings in the health care of detained asylum seekers come into effect today.

In a measure critics complain targets whistleblowers and will further deepen the secrecy surrounding the operation of immigration detention centres, the new Australian Border Force 2015 Act legislation, passed by Parliament in May, demands that all detention centre staff – including health workers – take an oath, and threatens two years imprisonment for any unauthorised disclosure of information.

Introducing the legislation, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Parliament the measure was necessary to “provide assurance to industry and our domestic and international law enforcement and intelligence partners that sensitive information provided to the Australian order Force and my department…will be appropriately protected”.

But the new legislation has fuelled concerns about a lack of scrutiny and accountability in the operation of immigration detention centres, particularly given the disbandment of the independent Immigration Health Advisory Group in late 2013.

Calls by the AMA and other medical groups for an amendment to the law to protect health workers and allow them to advocate on behalf of their patients have so far fallen on deaf ears.

The Government has also ignored suggestions that responsibility for the administration of asylum seeker health services be transferred to the Health Department, and that a body to provide independent oversight of care be reinstated.

Doctors warn the legislation contravenes clinical independence, which is a fundamental tenet of medical practice, by seeking to make medical practitioners and other health workers subject to the demands of the Government.

Dr Ai-Lene Chan, Dr Peter Young and Dr David Isaacs said the new laws placed 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,” they said, noting that pathology test 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.”

The focus on the treatment of detained asylum seekers is intensifying amid allegations that some detainees, including children, have been sexually assaulted and physically abused.

AMA President Professor Brian Olwer earlier this year highlighted an Australian Human Rights Commission report documenting disturbing cases of sexually and physical assault on children in detention.

Professor Owler said the findings underlined the need to get children out of detention.

“Detention is not a safe place for children and this report clearly defines that by the number of assaults, including sexual assaults, unfortunately, that have happened to children, but also the effects on children’s health, particularly mental health,” he said at the time.

Professor Owler said the issue demonstrated the need for greater transparency in the operation of detention centres, rather than deeper secrecy.

“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.”

Adrian Rollins

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