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Australia

Oct 10, 2014

The overwhelming moral questions facing Nauru child abuse investigator

Public servant Philip Moss has been charged with investigating claims of child abuse on Nauru. Australian Association of Social Workers president Karen Healy wonders if the government really wants to hear the answers.

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Philip Moss, the former integrity commissioner who has been appointed to investigate allegations of child abuse at the detention centre on Nauru, may soon wish he were back investigating the relatively simple ethical world of corruption at Sydney International Airport.

On the face of it, Moss’ task looks simple enough. According to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s media release, Moss will be asked to:

  • assess the accuracy of the allegations and determine exactly what the facts are;
  • ensure those facts are available to any authorities for any action that would take place as a result; and
  • provide the department with recommendations to strengthen relevant arrangements relating to the provision of services at the centre, and the conduct of service providers and staff at the Offshore Processing Centre in Nauru.

However, the question arises — how will Moss be able to get to the “facts”? And how will he know which “facts” are relevant to the investigation?

Moss no longer has the powers and resources of an integrity commissioner; he is simply a senior public servant with a particular remit. Secondly, it is unclear how much experience he has in investigating allegations of sexual abuse. Such investigations are quite complex, and witnesses and victims are often not prepared to talk unless adequately protected. The situation has been further complicated because Morrison, in a separate action, has ordered the removal of 10 Nauru-based staff from Save the Children. He has said little about these removals, except that they are related to a provision under the service provider contract and that they do not relate to any suspected misconduct regarding sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.

At a deeper level, how will Moss decide on what are the pertinent facts? What happens if, on visiting Nauru, he decides that he agrees with 80% of Australian paediatricians that immigration detention of children is child abuse, and he identifies that specific incidents of sexual abuse flow from this underlying fact? What if he decides that another fact is that children simply can’t be protected from child abuse on Nauru? Will Moss have the integrity to tell the government, even if it appears to be beyond his “terms of reference”? The government is not expecting these types of facts, yet a truthful investigation can hardly ignore them.

Back in April, director of Policy and Public Affairs at Save the Children Australia Mat Tinkler told the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention that SCA’s dedicated employees “often wrestled with an overarching policy that raises challenging moral questions for many of them”.

Soon Moss will have the opportunity also to wrestle with those challenging moral questions.

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