The Howard government ignored objections from three leading federal departments by agreeing to let authorities strip search asylum seekers in detention centres, new cabinet records reveal.
Cabinet papers from 2000, released on Friday by the National Archives of Australia, show the Prime Minister's Department, the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised against the policy.
The cabinet met in November that year to discuss its response to the mass escape of detainees from immigration detention centres amid growing increases in processing times for protection visas.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock proposed several changes to immigration laws to stop further outbreaks of detainees.
Among them was a new power allowing authorised officers to strip search immigration detainees without a warrant, if they were suspected of having a weapon or another item that could inflict harm or aid an escape.
"There have been several recent outbreaks of inappropriate behaviour by immigration detainees, the most public being mass break-outs from immigration detention facilities," Mr Ruddock's executive summary of the cabinet submission said.
"Action needs to be taken on several fronts to ensure that such inappropriate behaviour is curbed."
The searches would be authorised by an onsite Immigration Department detention facility manager, or a senior executive in the department.
Mr Ruddock told cabinet ministers that detainees had hidden items on their person and later used them for self-harm or to injure others or damage property.
He also proposed lifting the maximum penalty for escape from immigration detention to five years' imprisonment, and introducing new offences prohibiting incitement of detainees to commit offences or having or using weapons.
Three government departments raised objections to Mr Ruddock's proposed new law allowing strip searches of detainees.
The Attorney-General's Department said the search powers could allow scope for abuses of power and worsen security at detention centres.
"To avoid this, greater focus should be placed on other options, namely administrative/disciplinary action based on withdrawal of privileges and administrative fines, and use of the proposed new offences," the department said.
"If the wider search powers are ultimately preferred then, without appropriate safeguards and privacy protections, the measures proposed may expose the government to criticism."
The Attorney-General's Department said non-consensual strip searches should require authorisation from a magistrate "so that an independent perspective can be brought to bear in the authorisation process".
"Experience has shown that authorisation by those in the enforcement chain of command can lead to a conflict of interest and abuse."
The Prime Minister's Department said the proposed strip search powers were inappropriate to immigration detention, which it argued was administrative in nature.
It said the proposed law change went beyond the search powers in other Commonwealth laws for people not under arrest and lacked safeguards.
"The department would support introducing a power for appropriately qualified and authorised officers to conduct strip searches only with consent or after obtaining a warrant, and under certain safeguards similar to those prescribed by the Crimes Act," PM&C said.
DFAT opposed the strip search powers, arguing they could be regarded as inconsistent with Australia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
It said departments had noted in a previous cabinet memorandum that Australia's mandatory detention and temporary protection visa regimes had taken the nation close to the minimum standards of treatment under the Refugee Convention, and both international and domestic law.
The cabinet agreed on November 13 that year to introduce the strip search powers targeting immigration detainees.
Following mass escapes from Woomera, Curtin and Port Hedland detention centres, an analysis of the breakouts considered by cabinet in November suggested frustration over delays in issuing protection visas was to blame.
"Detainees had false expectations from people smugglers, and actual processing times had increased because of the enormous increase in unauthorised arrivals," it said.
In 1999-2000 asylum seeker arrivals rose by 450 per cent to 4175 people, according to cabinet documents.