Australian nursing and midwifery organisations have united in criticising new secrecy laws, which they say will prevent clinicians from whistleblowing about poor conditions at immigrant detention centres.
The Australian Border Force Act 2015 came into effect on 1 July and introduces new secrecy provisions for workers in asylum seeker detention centres.
It prohibits “entrusted persons” from making a record of or disclosing “protected information”, with a penalty of two years in prison.
But organisations representing health professionals have attacked the laws, claiming they will affect their professional responsibility to act as patient advocates.
“We’re horrified the government is using this new law to prevent the Australian public from knowing what really goes on inside detention centres by trying to silence nurses”
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation issued a strongly worded statement in which it condemned what it called a “gag” on nurses and midwives who spoke out about poor conditions in detention centres.
ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas said it was “outrageous” that the act could result in a two-year jail sentence for nurses, midwives and other health professionals who publically highlighted their concerns without the express permission of the immigration minister.
“We’re horrified the government is using this new law to prevent the Australian public from knowing what really goes on inside detention centres by trying to silence nurses and other health professionals who work there,” she said.
“Health professionals have a duty of care to the people for whom they care and ensuring the best care and conditions for providing that care, is an important feature of the role,” she said.
Ms Thomas noted that at a recent conference one its members, Marianne Evers, had given a harrowing account of her time working at a detention centre for Australian asylum seekers on Nauru, an island state in the South Pacific.
The nurse told the ANMF’s Victorian Delegates’ Conference at the end of June that asylum seekers were suffering poor physical and mental health, and living in unsanitary conditions that were exposed to the elements and also rats.
Ms Thomas said: “The ANMF believes Australia has a moral and legal obligation to treat every human being compassionately and with respect, courtesy and consideration irrespective of the place of treatment.
“It’s important that nurses working in detention centres are allowed to meet their codes of ethics and professional practice standards in the provision of proper, basic health care and not be working under the fear that they themselves could be jailed for trying to deliver proper, basic health services,” she said.
Meanwhile, 12 bodies representing health and social care professionals issued a joint statement highlighting their “concern about the appalling secrecy provisions” and requesting “urgent amendments”.
“Restricting our ability to speak out about conditions in detention, and threatening us with imprisonment for up to two years is a direct attack on our ability to work for the health and protection of our patients,” said the statement, which was signed among others by the Australian College of Nursing, the Australian College of Midwives and the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses.
“It is inconceivable to us that the government should seek to gag our ability to advocate strongly for our patients. Changes must be passed immediately,” it added.
The level of criticism surrounding the legislation led the Australian government to issue its own statement on 7 July, in which ministers said some of the unions’ claims were “highly misleading”.
It said clinicians and other professionals employed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection were not inhibited from reporting matters in line with their professional obligations.
“Contracted service providers, including health and educational professionals, deliver vital services to those in immigration detention”
However, the statement failed to specifically state whether nurses and other health professionals who spoke out in public or via the media about conditions would be exempt from prosecution, as opposed to those who used official channels.
Michael Pezzullo, immigration and border protection secretary, said: “It has never been permissible for contracted service providers to make public operational detail which poses a risk to the safety and security of individuals, or which affects the operation of the Department or the former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.”
“Contracted service providers, including health and educational professionals, deliver vital services to those in immigration detention. The department will continue to work co-operatively and closely with such professionals to deliver those services,” he said.
Roman Quaedvlieg, the newly-appointed Australian border force commissioner, added: “The department and its service providers have robust internal policies, procedures and review mechanisms in place through which any concerns, including those relating to medical treatment, can be raised and addressed.”
The statement appeared to do little to reassure the ANMF, which has around 240,000 members. On 11 July, it said it had asked the government for urgent clarification on the obligations of nurses and midwives working in detention facilities and their mandatory reporting obligations for children and other patients.
On the same day, members of the federation’s branch in Victoria gathered on the steps of the state parliament to protest against the act.