Democratic failures of the asylum seeker policy

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The secrecy of the Abbott Government’s asylum seeker policy has deprived Australians of the ability to watch the government’s actions, leading them to neglect their constitutional duty to ‘never look away’, according to a University of Adelaide constitutional law expert.

Associate Professor Alex Reilly says in 2014, the government exercised a military-style response to the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders and Australia’s policy of processing asylum seekers.

“Through this militarisation, the government has employed strict controls on the release of information related to the interception, return and processing of asylum seekers,” says Associate Professor Reilly, from the University’s Law School.  

“Access to offshore detention centres has largely been denied to the media, and public agencies, including the Ombudsman and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“The strict control of information means that Australians don’t know exactly what is
going on, which has resulted in them being unable to perform their democratic duty of observing and holding the government to account.

“The media has relied on leaks to gain information on asylum seeker policy. These whistleblowers, and the journalists reporting their stories, put themselves at risk of breaking the law to disclose information that should be freely available in the first place,” he says.  

The Abbott Government’s mission to stop the boats and disrupt the people smuggling business model and its policy of processing asylum seekers has been labelled a success, with only one confirmed boat arrival since December 2013. However, Associate Professor Alex Reilly says the overall success of the Federal Government’s asylum seeker policy can only be assessed if the human rights and other costs are known.

“If turning back the boats and detaining asylum seekers off-shore involves serious breaches of human rights then these must be included in any assessment of Operation Sovereign Borders,” he says. 

Associate Professor Reilly says the government has entered a new phase in its response to
asylum seekers in 2015.

“In many ways, the ‘crisis’ phase of the government’s policy is over now. The new phase is the processing of claims and the resettlement of refugees. There would seem less justification for secrecy in relation to this phase of the policy,” he says.  

“Unfortunately the culture of secrecy seems to be continuing. For many months the government has been negotiating a deal with Cambodia involving the resettlement of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. The details of these negotiations have not been revealed, leaving the public in the dark about the agreement and the costs involved.”  

Associate Professor Reilly says our Constitution creates a system where power is held and
exercised on behalf of the people.

“The government has an obligation to inform Australians about what Commonwealth Officers are doing. A democracy only functions effectively when information is freely available for the people to consider. We need to seriously question the need to withhold information from the public. It is very important that the public is in a position to monitor and assess government action for Australia to be true to its Constitution.”


Contact Details

Associate Professor Alex Reilly
Director, Public Law and Policy Research Unit
Adelaide Law School
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 313 3596
Mobile: +61 (0)419 310 351

Media & Corporate Relations
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The University of Adelaide
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