GAG SYMBOLIC: Doctors, nurses, health care workers and teachers from the Northern Rivers protest against the Border Force Act, in Byron Bay.
GAG SYMBOLIC: Doctors, nurses, health care workers and teachers from the Northern Rivers protest against the Border Force Act, in Byron Bay. Mireille Merlet-Shaw

Workers rally to protest gagging of detention centre staff

SYMBOLIC white gags were the garment of choice for many of the 100 or so teachers and medical workers who turned out to Belongil Beach on Saturday to protest the Coalition Government's  Border Force Act.

The Act, passed surreptitiously on July 1, forbids any staff working with asylum seekers in various onshore and offshore detention centres from speaking out about conditions under pain of a jail sentence of up to two years.

Organiser Dr Rachel Heap said the local protest was staged in solidarity for those frontline healthcare workers put into an "impossible situation" by the legislation.

"This is targeted at people who are there to care for the most vulnerable members of society," Dr Heap said.

"We're representing people who spend our working lives looking after the welfare of others," she said.

Critics say the legislation means workers are being intimidated into not speaking out about abuses in detention centres.

It comes at a time when reports of abuses have become more widespread.

In April, an open letter by former employees of the Nauru detention centre was distributed to media which claimed chronic physical and sexual abuse of women and children had been going on there - and was known by the Department of Immigration - for more than a year prior.

The group called for a Royal Commission into the allegations and the Department's response.

Dr Heap said the Border Force Act was drawn up and passed soon after that letter.

She condemned the Federal Government for the "sneaky" way it introduced the legislation despite its profound implications.

"How did they get this through without there being a proper debate about it?" she said.

"Why else do you need to be secret unless you've got something to hide?

"Kids are trying to kill themselves right now in detention and we're those who could speak up for them.

"The root of this problem is we're jailing people for seeking asylum.

"Refugees are a global issue and stopping one element of the problem is not dealing with the problem, it's just shifting it somewhere else."

Lismore registered nurse Anne Mackenzie took the day off work to attend the protest and drove from The Channon.

Others had come from as far as Murwillumbah and Lismore.

To protest Ms Mackenzie chose to wear masking tape across her chest inscribed with the words "I shall not be gagged".

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