SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s election agenda focusing on jobs and growth is at risk of being hijacked by the country’s harsh immigration policy and controversial network of offshore detention camps for asylum seekers.
Canberra has vowed to stop refugees sailing from Indonesia and Sri Lanka and landing on its shores, instead intercepting boats at sea and holding those on board in camps in far-flung Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Now Turnbull, who ousted conservative Tony Abbott in a party coup last year promising a more progressive agenda, is facing calls of xenophobia for refusing to condemn his immigration minister’s claims that refugees will steal Australian jobs and strain the social safety network.
Australia goes to the polls on July 2.
Peter Young, former director of mental health services in Australia’s detention center network, said this week that police had accessed his phone records, in part over his criticism of the country’s detention policies.
Young accused the government of attempting to cover up deaths in custody, as well as intimidating medical staff and aid workers from revealing the conditions in the camps.
The immigration and foreign ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this month Australia said it had agreed to compensate a charity for wrongly accusing it of inciting refugees to self-harm in protest at conditions on Nauru in 2014.
“The thing that the government doesn’t want people to know is that putting people in these situations and exposing people to these health conditions is causing them to die. If that is to be part of their plan then they should be transparent, they should make people aware of them,” Young told Reuters.
“If they don’t speak out, they are not behaving in a way that is ethical.”
In the past month, two asylum seekers have set themselves on fire in protest against their treatment on Nauru where there have been reports of child abuse. One of them, an Iranian man, died.
Papua New Guinea has said it plans to close the Manus center after its Supreme Court ruled it unlawful, raising questions about where the refugees will be resettled.
Border security and immigration have swayed Australian elections before. The conservative government last year pledged to take 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of its 13,750 annual quota. The center-left opposition Labor Party says it would double the annual quota to 27,000.
(Story corrects Young’s title in para 5.)
Editing by Nick Macfie