Malcolm Turnbull warns NSW and Queensland of ‘company they’re keeping’ by blocking UN prison inspectors

Former prime minister disappointed by states’ decisions to not allow full access to UN subcommittee on prevention of torture

The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has warned the New South Wales and Queensland governments to “think carefully about the international company they are keeping” by blocking or limiting United Nations inspectors’ access to detention facilities.

Turnbull said he was disappointed by the government decisions to not allow full access to the team, who are in the country this week as part of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, ratified when he was in office in 2017.

This came after inspectors were refused entry to a facility in Queanbeyan in NSW earlier this week. Guardian Australia on Thursday revealed that Queensland was blocking visits to mental health facilities where people were being kept under the control of the state, due to a stipulation in the health act.

The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said UN officials would be turned away from facilities in his state over the lack of a funding agreement with the federal government to pay for possible suggested changes.

Turnbull said Australia had a great record and any actions to block visitation made it seem otherwise, noting he was “disappointed” in the events of the week.

“The NSW position is very regrettable and will inevitably be seen by many as indicating NSW lacks confidence that its custodial facilities are at an acceptable standard,” he said.

“If a jurisdiction does not allow UN inspectors to visit facilities in accordance with the protocol, for whatever reason – the obvious question will be, what do you have to hide?

“New South Wales and Queensland have to think carefully about the international company they are keeping.”

Queensland’s human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, said it was “deeply disappointing” that the state government has not altered legislation to allow officials to access its inpatient units, despite having years to do so.

States have known for five years that the inspections would occur, and laws were changed in other jurisdictions to provide for such access.

While inspectors have been allowed into the Queensland prisons, the state’s health department would not allow them to access inpatient units where people ordered to undergo treatment or charged with crimes were held.

McDougall said the decision to limit access to the units “reflects poorly on our commitment to create a human rights culture in the public sector” – a core objective of the Human Rights Act.

He said if a formal optional protocol against torture arrangement had already been established in Queensland ahead of the January 2023 deadline, “this embarrassing development would almost certainly have been avoided”.

“If there were legislative barriers to the subcommittee visiting specific facilities or types of facilities, it would have obviously been preferable to have dealt with these before now, as has occurred in other jurisdictions,” he said.

The commission welcomed the commitment of Queensland Corrective Services to provide unrestricted access to the delegation.

“The hard work, professionalism, and commitment of all staff working in mental health units, police watch houses, prisons and other places of detention must be acknowledged, particularly after the challenges of Covid-19 in recent years,” McDougall said.

“Any independent assessment of these places of detention is likely to recognise that.”

Queensland Health said while it supported the subcommittee’s visit, it was bound by the Mental Health Act 2016 to limit inpatient unit access to “certain categories of visitors” for the safety of patients.

“We are supporting the United Nations subcommittee’s upcoming visit by facilitating interviews with patients and staff and providing access to documents about our mental health facilities, in line with our legislative and privacy obligations,” a spokesperson said.

The NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, said the state’s refusal to let officials in “leaves the impression that Australian prisons are not meeting the minimum standard”.

“My concern about rejecting these UN inspectors is that people will believe that our prisons are as bad as Rwanda or Azerbaijan when we know that they’re not,” he said.

On Thursday, Perrottet said it was “a great decision from Queensland” and denied that it was a “bad look” for governments to be blocking access.

“We have some of the strongest conditions anywhere in the world,” he said.


Tamsin Rose and Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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