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Detention secrecy's wrong

Date

Greg Barns

Asylum seekers  sit behind the wire of the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.

Asylum seekers sit behind the wire of the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

When do public servants cross the line and blow the whistle on government actions? When those policies are of such a morally problematic dimension that some individuals working within government agencies responsible for the devising and execution of those policies decide their conscience will not allow them to remain silent.

The pursuit of highly punitive actions towards asylum seekers by both the Rudd/Gillard governments and now the Abbott government is one such area of policy where one could argue it is in the interest of the community for public servants to ensure the light shines on the truth of the matter. This is because our politicians refuse to allow proper scrutiny of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Operation Sovereign Borders is similarly tainted with secrecy.

We are not talking here about matters of national security where there is sometimes a legitimate argument for secrecy. When it comes to treatment of asylum seekers and the actions of our military and civilian public servants what is at stake are fundamental human rights and whether or not Australia is complying with national and international laws in taking the actions it is in the name of all Australians.

That it is desirable for government policy on matters of great weight where human rights are involved to be exposed by whistleblowers or public servants providing fearless and honest answers when being scrutinised by the Parliament was borne out in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Australia joined with the US and the UK in seeking to fool the people of their respective nations that Saddam Hussein had a cache of weapons of mass destruction and that the US and its allies had no choice but to bypass the United Nations and head to war.

It was courtesy of whistleblowers like Andrew Wilkie here in Australia (now the independent member for Denison), Valerie Plame, a US diplomat, and David Kelly, a senior public servant in the UK, that the world came to know that the pretext of sending thousands of men and women into war was in fact false.

All of those who blew the whistle on the deceit behind the Iraq War did so because they believed that the role of public servants was not to lie and obfuscate but to ensure that the truth behind extremely serious policy decisions taken by government were revealed to the people that the government purports to represent.

There is also the issue of whether or not there is a moral duty on an individual to reveal the truth when there is evidence that government policy is causing substantial physical and mental harm to others or where the execution of policy breaches the law.

Both of these considerations are at play in the context of the Australian government's asylum seeker policy. The media is hamstrung in terms of access to Manus Island and Nauru. It is only when brave individuals working for NGOs in those detention centres speak out that the Australian people gets some idea of the inhumane conditions that exist. When it comes to Operation Sovereign Borders, the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, and his military sidekick, Angus Campbell, consistently refuse to answer questions, obfuscate, and deny reliable reports from the media about Navy mistreatment of asylum seekers.

Given all this, is it important for our democracy that public servants disclose the truth of the circumstances of the execution of asylum seeker policy? On what we know, there are possible breaches by Australia of its international law obligations in relation to asylum seekers it finds at sea. We also know the conditions for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island are so dire they have been the subject of a number of highly critical reports from groups such as Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

That such conduct is happening on the watch of a government that purports to uphold liberal democratic values makes it imperative that the full truth is known so that those responsible for these policies can be held to account.

Of course, for a public servant to disclose matters of grave import is to invite in many cases possible legal sanction and dismissal from their position. Not to mention the bullying and demonising experienced by whistleblowers.

But as the case of US whistleblower Edward Snowden tells us, a democracy is strengthened when individuals become so morally uncomfortable with policies they encounter they see no alternative but to ensure the revelation of secretive and oppressive government activity. If it weren't for Snowden last week US President Barack Obama would not have announced some curtailment of the activities of US intelligence agencies.

Australians deserve to be told the truth about the treatment of asylum seekers. The hiding behind military operations rhetoric and barbed wire must stop. The only way that we can hope for a more humane and transparent policy towards asylum seekers is if the truth is disclosed. Just as the Iraq War spawned whistleblowing, so should this equally morally dubious government operation.

Greg Barns is a barrister and ran the WikiLeaks Party 2013 federal election campaign.

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