Drugs, alcohol and ‘horrendous’ attacks in detention centres leave ABF reeling

<span>ABF commissioner Michael Outram has said expanding the force’s search powers is ‘really important’ for the safety of detainees, workers and visitors.</span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
ABF commissioner Michael Outram has said expanding the force’s search powers is ‘really important’ for the safety of detainees, workers and visitors.Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The commissioner of the Australian Border Force is appealing to the government for increased search powers to crack down on drugs and alcohol in immigration detention, where he says addiction is rife and violence is on the rise.

After “quite horrendous assaults” on Serco staff in detention centres, Michael Outram said expanded search powers “would be of great assistance” to reduce the “high level of threat and risk” posed by detainees with access to drugs and alcohol.

The commissioner made the comments in a wide-ranging interview for Guardian’s Australian Politics podcast discussing ABF’s apology to its staff for failing to “prevent workplace misconduct from occurring” after two damning reports found sexual discrimination and harassment were rife in the ABF and its marine unit.

The Australian Human Rights Commission called for more search powers in a report in April, but the home affairs department referred that recommendation to the Albanese government.

Outram directly endorsed it: “If the detention population remains broadly as it is now, which is a lot of people who’ve been in prison and there is a lot of drug and alcohol addiction, then I think, yes, to manage the safety of detainees, visitors and workers of our detention facilities [it] is really important.”

He said the prevalence of “home brew type arrangements” and the “quite horrendous assaults on Serco staff in the last few months” were justification for greater powers to search. He said the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, was “aware of this”.

Outram said border force leadership would “certainly continue to advocate for more powers for our people to keep themselves and other detainees safe in our detention centres”, and to search for drugs and alcohol.

A government spokesperson said: “The government will always look for ways to improve workplace safety for staff working in these crucial roles.”

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In May, the federal budget injected $71.2m over two years into ABF’s “on-water response and aerial surveillance capabilities”, although $37m of this is to lease vessels while some of the fleet is undergoing critical maintenance.

In June the Age reported the ABF’s Cape class vessels were beset with problems, including a fire and communication systems failure that crippled one as it patrolled the Kimberley coastline at the same time that a people-smuggling vessel landed in Western Australia.

Outram acknowledged the Cape class vessels were “getting older” and that older vessels “need more maintenance” but denied there had been “significant gaps” in border surveillance as a result.

“We have never had more funding than we have now for our air and marine assets – that’s not the issue,” he said.

“I think we’re working with defence right now on coming back to government to improve the way we plan and manage these capabilities.”

In February the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, claimed Labor had weakened Operation Sovereign Borders – which seeks to deter and intercept asylum seeker boats en route to Australia – despite Outram confirming the ABF’s funding is now the highest it has been since it was established in 2015.

Outram declined to elaborate on contradictory public statements from Giles about whether drones are used to surveil people released on immigration detention, saying only that “when we use any surveillance methodologies and techniques, we comply with the law”.

He said the 160 people released as a result of the high court’s ruling on indefinite detention face an “unprecedented” and “remarkable” level of monitoring compared with the 15,000 Australians released from prison every three months.

Related: Australian election fought on immigration could cause ‘civil unrest’, former department official warns

In April Guardian Australia revealed that two AHRC reports into the culture of the marine unit and the broader ABF found bullying and harassment “are normalised” in some sections of the workforce.

Outram said the reports were commissioned due to “concerning” complaints made during exit interviews raising inappropriate behaviour, despite “radio silence” from the ABF’s “formal reporting mechanisms” for bullying and harassment.

He was “really quite shocked” by the AHRC’s findings, particularly with respect to the marine unit and some “potentially unlawful” behaviours including “unwanted touching” and “inappropriate text messaging”.

Some inappropriate behaviour, he said, was the result of “unconscious bias” including “unwanted … protective behaviours towards women”.

The ABF has accepted all of the AHRC’s recommendations and apologised to staff, “particularly the women” affected by these behaviours, Outram said.

“In terms of the victims of that behaviour, whilst they were brave enough to speak to the Human Rights Commission, and I’m so pleased they did – none have yet come forward and made formal complaints to the organisation.”

Outram said the ABF must shift to recognise “that we have a positive duty, so it’s no longer good enough for a leader to be a passive bystander”.

“If you observe harmful behaviours, you are legally – I’d say ethically as well – legally obliged to take action to do something, to prevent that.”