I wrote this back in December and it is worth repeating to keep in context the Bill that Kerryn Phelps will present to the parliament next week, the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018: it has already passed the Senate :
“Back in September 2014, a young man died in a Brisbane hospital after he had contracted a leg infection on Manus Island where he had been held in detention by Australian immigration authorities. Brisbane Coroner Mr Terry Ryan found his death followed a series of clinical errors and delays,” including a lack of antibiotics on Manus Island to treat tropical infections and a failure by Australian immigration officials to urgently grant a doctor’s request for the twenty-four-year-old asylum seeker to be transferred to Australia for life-saving treatment.
The coroner found the Australian Government had not met its responsibility to detainees such as Mr Hamid Khazaei to provide health care that was “broadly comparable” to that available in Australia.
The coroner recommended a systemic overhaul of healthcare responses in offshore detention, including a new policy to allow doctors on the ground, rather than Canberra officials, to approve medical transfers.
So why raise this matter now, we all know that the medical welfare of asylum seekers held indefinitely on Manus and Nauru has been a highly toxic political issue for some years. The coalition government go to great lengths to argue that healthcare available to asylum seekers on these islands is of a high standard and equivalent to that available in regional Australia. But then we have organisations like MSF saying it was deeply concerned for the health and well-being of patients and described the mental health situation of asylum seekers and refugees on the island (Nauru) as “beyond desperate”: MSF were then ejected from Nauru.
More than 4700 Australian doctors and medical professionals have signed a new appeal asking Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reconsider his refusal to transfer sick refugee children and their families off Nauru (and Manus) for medical care.
When Dr Kerryn Phelps was elected to the federal seat of Wentworth, she took it as a personal crusade to bring the children on Nauru to Australia (or New Zealand who have consistently offered to take 150 asylum seekers a year since 2013) with no further delay and to streamline the medical evacuation process. As had been noted by the Brisbane Coroner, in the Khazaei case, there is a very opaque system in place that involves bureaucrats in Canberra who will frequently override medical advise when it comes to evacuating a patient (or they will send people to Port Moresby or Taiwan rather than bring them here).
The parliament was due to knock-off for the summer holidays last Thursday but before that occurred, a Bill was passed in the Senate to change and streamline the medivac process and leave it to two medical professionals to authorise a medical evacuation with the minister having ultimate discretion : in circumstances where the minister went against medical opinions and disallowed the medical evacuation he or she would be answerable to the parliament. Clearly, in these circumstances, the minister would be chancing his or her arm to go against professional medical advice.
In the Senate, there was much filibustering and waffling to avoid this Bill being passed and going before the House of Representatives. Morrison had a win by shutting down the House early so that the Bill could not be presented or voted on.
Clearly, the system of medical evacuation needed upgrading, the Brisbane coroner noted that, but the coalition are against any change and they have suggested that to improve the medical evacuation system will lead to detainees engaging in self-harm to expedite an evacuation: does that mean that the current cumbersome system discourages self-harm?
Scott Morrison got a bit shirty about the proposed legislative changes saying in an intemperate and rather bizarre and impromptu news conference that :
“I will do everything in my power to ensure that these suggested changes … never see the light of day,” Mr Morrison said. “I will do whatever I can. I will fight them using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me to ensure that we do not undermine our border protection laws.”
Why do you think that our prime minister would say this, does he believe that taking such decisions out of the hands of unqualified bureaucrats and giving them to doctors will really undermine our border protection laws rather than just save lives?
It seems that what really is getting up Morrison’s nose is that over eighty percent of the detainees on Nauru and Manus have been found to be genuine refugees and as such can claim protection and sanctuary if they come to Australia, and this is the point. The whole offshore detention policy was designed to get these people out of Australia and beyond the reach of Australian law and jurisdiction and Morrison is worried that, as the majority of these people are suffering from undiagnosed mental illnesses, they will all end up here, assert their refugee status, claim protection as they are entitled to do and Bob’s your uncle.”
The Phelps Bill, the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018 reflects the recommendations of the Brisbane Coroner and will require that two doctors, usually one on the island in question and another doing an electronic case evaluation from Australia will be able to initiate and streamline a medical evacuation where in their joint opinions it is warranted based on medical grounds. The minister still has right of veto if there are pressing security factors that override the medical considerations: hard to think that such a situation could arise but Scott Morrison considers that some of the refugees could be rapists, murderers and pedophiles. If they are, then it seems strange that after five years in detention they have not been detected and criminally prosecuted.
Both the government and their handmaiden Newscorp have gone into overdrive to stop this Bill passing in the House of Representatives and they say that if it passes among other things, the sky will fall in and the sun will not rise and a plague of toads will visit this wide brown land – and that it will cost the taxpayer a minimum of some $1.4 Billion to medivac and attend to these sick people. They even say that they will have to reopen the Christmas Island detention facility as they anticipate that all of the remaining detainees on Manus and Nauru are suffering from some physical or mental condition and will require medical evacuation: in this, they are probably right. Mr Dutton also helpfully adds that if the legislation is passed an armada of boats will imminently put to see from Indonesia – he fervently hopes.
So, we have a perfectly sensible piece of legislation that may very well be defeated depending on how the Independents and crossbenchers vote; Bob Katter has already been bought off and it seems that Cathy McGowan is the wild-card – we shall see.
After the recent US transfers from both islands, there are now roughly one thousand detainees left who have been held without trial for over five years. Isn’t it about time that Australia stood up and told these buffoons, masquerading as a government, that Enough is Enough?
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