Security and Education experts are claiming that the government’s new Home Affairs super ministry will threaten the press freedom of journalists and damage the nation’s growing $22 billion international education industry.
According to education experts, there is a significant danger of seeing the education sector deprioritised in favour of border control as the super agency shifts to national security focused agenda.
The journalist’s union has also warned that Australia’s press freedom may be under threat thanks to the combined surveillance powers of the new agency, combined with its historically poor track record of respecting free speech.
Despite the government’s insistence that the changes won’t affect the activities of journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has spoken out against the proposed super ministry, saying the move will lead to restricted freedoms for whistle-blowers and the press.
The chief executive of the MEAA, Paul Murphy, called the proposed Home Affairs department, “one-stop shop for oppression of public discourse”.
“The government’s appetite for discovering all manner of inconvenient information including that which is plainly in the public interest, shows no sign of being whetted. We now have a situation where the militarised Australian Border Force, with its extreme powers to imprison whistle-blowers now sits alongside ASIO, with its ability to imprison journalists and their sources for up to 10 years,” Murphy said.
“These two agencies will now sit together with the Australian Federal Police which in April admitted it had illegally accessed a journalist’s telecommunications data without a warrant.”
“It seems the only law reform the government is interested in is re-doubling its efforts to punish those who dare speak out in the public interest,” he said.
However, a government spokesperson has rebuked these claims, saying that the new Home Affairs ministry will not affect the freedom of journalists.
“Oversight and accountability will actually be strengthened, with the Attorney-General signing warrants and taking on responsibility for oversight capabilities,” the spokesperson said.
The executive director of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), Phil Honeywood, has said that Australia’s international education sector is similarly under threat.
Honeywood claims that Australia has already begun to follow the same path as Britain, which saw a dominant culture emerge following the merging of the immigration and border security department, along with the loss of senior staff who could navigate the complicated nuances of visa policy.
“There may be a genuine need to co-ordinate national security issues in a more effective manner. However, the record of the border control office in the UK has been to create a ‘just say no’ culture when it comes to student visa approvals,” Honeywood said.
“Concerns have been raised that border control has effectively taken over rather than merged with immigration. My concern is that hopeful students from certain countries or certain areas would be targeted for more visa refusals.”
“Up until recently, student visas have been assessed through the lens of professional immigration department officers who understand the rationale behind overseas students wanting a study experience in a country such as Australia. But if visa applications are viewed through the lens of border control then we are likely to see unnecessary and adverse visa refusals,” he said.
The IEAA also drew further comparisons to the UK, noting that strict restrictions on the issuing of student visas were introduced under the oversight of British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Honeywood said that thanks to May’s restrictions international students came to be seen by the Home Office as more “illegal immigrant than student”, leading to the first decline in overseas enrolments in over 30 years.
“Certainly there needs to be a national-security filter applied to any student coming from any country,” Honeywood said.
“But Chinese and Indian PhD students were already having their visas delayed a year because they were being viewed as a potential threat.
“The irony here is that the most significant growth for research collaboration in Australia is with India and China. So we are potentially killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.
The CEO of Absolute Immigration, Jamie Lingham, echoed the critical view of the IEAA, saying that Australia’s education sector may be under threat thanks to the government’s ill-considered approach to reforming the visa system.
“Our view is that the government needs to maintain a consistent approach across all visa subclasses, not only a select few,” Lingham said.
“It is difficult for us to tell clients that they are facing a high level of scrutiny in one category, where other visa subclasses can be approved almost unchecked. Western Australia has already reported a decline in student visa numbers, something that is attributed to the government’s hardline stance against overseas foreign nationals.”
“It is going to be interesting to see what the response will be if overseas education suffers drastically due to measures that appear anti-student and anti-immigration,” he said.
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