Australia’s newest security agency commences operations today. As if we didn’t have enough unaccountable bodies with draconian powers, now we have another, Australian Border Force, under former AFP officer Roman Quaedvlieg.

ABF is more than the sum of its parts — the Department of Immigration’s border protection functions and Customs. It’s a national security state version of that union, with the unaccountability of ASIO and the paramilitary powers of the AFP, operating within a portfolio that is already a byword for unaccountability. Immigration, after all, is the department that stood by and did nothing about reports of sexual assault and child abuse in the detention centre it operates (regardless of what verbiage it wants to employ about how it doesn’t really operate it) on Nauru.

In particular, the Australian Border Force Act 2015 uses the secrecy template already developed by the government in relation to ASIO and ASIS. There’s been considerable media coverage of the secrecy provisions within the act that would prevent people employed, even indirectly, in relation to the operation of detention centres from revealing incidences of rape, child abuse or other forms of abuse — a device clearly intended to protect Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his secretary, Mike Pezzullo, from ongoing revelations about the widespread sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children occurring on Nauru. Staff and contractors face two years’ jail if they reveal sexual abuse or anything else deemed embarrassing by Dutton, Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg — the definition of “protected information” under the act simply means anything someone has learnt in the course of their duties, leaving massive discretion for prosecution. When ministers or departmental executives leak protected information to the advantage of the government, however, you can be sure no prosecutions will be brought.

The two-year prison sentence is a lift from similar provisions in the Crimes Act, but also the government’s data retention laws, under which a journalist revealing that a government agency is trying to get their metadata to identify a source can be jailed for two years. The ABF Act also uses a George Brandis innovation — criminalising photocopying or printing. Brandis made it an offence punishable by three years’ jail for an ASIO officer to engage in “unauthorised dealings” with information, including making a record of it — as Brandis admitted, this was prompted by Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s illegal surveillance. Similarly, the ABF Act makes it illegal to make a copy of “protected information”, with two years’ jail the punishment.

This takes the secrecy provisions beyond revealing information to the media, and would cover repetitions of the embarrassing moment in late 2013 when a Save the Children Australia employee working on Nauru emailed Immigration Department officials about the sexual assault of a teenage boy, thereby creating a paper trail that later came back to haunt the department. Under the act, merely recording that a sexual assault had taken place could lead to two years’ jail, unless done at the instruction of more senior staff.

The way that this makes it far easier to cover up rape and sexual abuse, and the embarrassment that results to ministers and senior departmental officials, is part of a pattern under this government. It’s a pattern that the opposition has been, for the most part, entirely happy to support — Labor enthusiastically backed the ABF Act, with the Greens opposing it. Under the guise of protecting national security, the government has moved more and more of the activities of key agencies — Defence, Immigration, ASIO, the AFP — beyond scrutiny, with the clear goal of preventing embarrassment when illegal activity occurs. Some examples, in addition to the data retention laws:

  • revealing certain ASIO operations now means 10 years’ jail (backed by Labor);
  • the navy repeatedly breached Indonesian sovereignty as part of the highly secretive Operation Sovereign Borders; an official, possibly working for our foreign intelligence service, ASIS, broke the law by bribing people smugglers to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia (Operation Sovereign Borders’ secrecy was opposed by Labor, but the opposition has refused to discuss bribes to people smugglers that occurred on its watch);
  • the Department of Immigration tried to pretend multiple incidents of sexual assault and child abuse weren’t occurring on Nauru, or if they were, they weren’t its responsibility, and demanded the whistleblowers who revealed it retract their evidence; some whistleblowers have been threatened with prosecution under pre-ABF Act laws (Labor supported a Senate inquiry into Nauru); and
  • the government is seeking ways to prosecute Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for entirely legally revealing the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet by ASIS, while the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security refuses point blank to investigate what was a straightforward case of lawbreaking by ASIS (Labor has never said a word about this matter)

It’s not merely a wave of secrecy, but secrecy deliberately intended to help cover up illegal actions of officials or those in their employ.

It’s a lesser offence, but also revealing of the shabby nature of this new security agency: the creation of the ABF was used an an opportunity to try to rip off Customs employees. That’s why ABF formally commences today with rolling strikes at Australian airports: departmental management thought they could use the ABF establishment process to reduce entitlements for former Customs staff by, in some cases, $8000 a year. A desperate Pezzullo started to back down last Friday, offering transitional payments to affected staff, but it hasn’t been enough to prevent the government’s campaign against public service pay from taking the shine off an agency intended to burnish the government’s national security credentials.

And if there’s tragedy, and stupidity, in the ABF, there’s also farce. One well-placed informant told Crikey that $45 million was being spent on new ABF uniforms (which are all made in China), with staff being given more than twice as much new kit as they received in the last two uniform changes, which have occurred in the last three years. The department’s media area didn’t respond to Crikey before deadline about the uniforms issue. Perhaps they were too busy trying to fix the departmental site, which crashed this morning as Roman Quaedvlieg was being officially installed as Commissioner.

For an agency that’s all about avoiding scrutiny, what better way to start?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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