When Jacquie Lambie appeared on Q&A I thought that finally we would get some answers on why she allowed her pivotal vote in the Senate to repeal the medevac laws. The laws had been introduced on a private members Bill sponsored by Kerryn Phelps, Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt, Julia Banks and Rebekha Sharkie on 6 December 2018 and formally known as the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018.
The purpose of the Bill was quite simply stated as :
‘Amends the Migration Act 1958 to: require the temporary transfer to Australia of transitory persons on Manus Island or Nauru, and their families, if they are assessed by two or more treating doctors as requiring medical treatment; and require the temporary transfer of all children and their families from offshore detention to Australia for the purpose of medical or psychiatric assessment.’
The need for this Bill had been driven by the 2014 tragic and unnecessary death of a young man 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 the medevac Bill came into existence as a Private Members Bill and passed into the law of the land without the support of the minority government who pledged that they would repeal the legislation as soon as they had a majority. Not because it was bad law but because it was not their law and they will not tolerate any divergence from their legislative agenda such as it is.
After the law was passed the government had what I think you could call a ‘hissy-fit’. Dutton told us that those on Manus were paedophiles, murderers and rapists and would be fooling doctors to get on a ‘plane to Australia with a headache or an ingrowing toenail. Morrison hightailed it over to Christmas Island with a select media group as he explained that the wilfulness of the Senate in passing the medevac legislation would imminently result in an armada of boats from Indonesia and Christmas Island needed to be reopened at great expense to accommodate this new wave of ‘boat people’.
Let us quickly dismiss this nonsense : firstly if these folk on Manus were criminals as suggested by Spud Dutton, why have they not been brought before the courts of PNG or Australia. PNG has a mature legal system as was evidenced by their Supreme Court finding – against massive Australian diplomatic and legal interference – that the detention of people without trial is unconstitutional and thus unlawful in Papua New Guinea. PNG has also in recent days enacted ICAC legislation to take on corruption in high places, something Australia finds very hard to do. The PNG judicial system would have quickly apprehended these so called criminals if they were within their jurisdiction – it may be, as with Guantanamo Bay, that the detention centres are actually within the jurisdiction of Australia although our government is ambivalent on this when it suits them.
As regards Morrison’s Christmas Island adventure it tended to backfire as there was no armada and the detention centre has only been used for one Sri Lankan family and more recently for the quarantining of potential corona virus [covid-19] patients.
Let’s now turn to the legislation that brought into effect the more orderly management of medical evacuees that Dutton in particular was so opposed to. He saw this legislation as creating a national security problem because he, as responsible minister – I use that term loosely – would be unable to control the flow of people seeking medical attention in Australia as a result of this new – now repealed – legislation.
The new legislation set out the conditions by which sick people on Nauru and Manus could be transferred to Australia for medical treatment. The medevac law required that a medical evacuation could take place if two or more treating doctors considered that a person needed to be evacuated : the Home Affairs minister still retained the discretion for refusal despite saying that it had been taken out of his hands.
The ministerial discretion applied in three areas.
First, the minister could refuse the transfer if he disagreed with the clinical assessment.
The second grounds for refusal is if the minister reasonably suspected that the transfer of the person to Australia would be prejudicial to security “within the meaning of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, including because an adverse security assessment in respect of the person is in force under that Act.”
The transfer could also be refused if ASIO advises the minister that transfer of the person to Australia may be prejudicial to security “and that threat cannot be mitigated”.
The third grounds for refusal was if the minister knew that the transferee had a substantial criminal record and the minister reasonably believes the person would expose the Australian community to a serious risk of criminal conduct.
But, those decisions and that discretion needed to be exercised within 72 hours to prevent the matter dragging on and to avoid as far as possible the unfortunate outcome that bureaucratic bumbling had for the late Mr Hamid Khazaei.
Finally, if the minister denied the transfer request on health grounds (as opposed to security or criminal grounds), then the issue would go to an Independent Health Advice Panel “as soon as practicable.”
So, the minister was always in control of the situation he just had to make decisions based on reasonable evidence without unnecessary delay.
Back to Senator Lambie on Q&A. She was asked why she used her vote to help repeal the medevac laws despite overwhelming evidence from the AMA and other doctors groups including Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF] who said this :
In an ideal world we would not need the MedEvac Bill, but right now it is crucial to keep it in place. Because decisions around how patients should be treated must always be made by independent medical professionals, not politicians.
Clearly this legislation was sensible and humane and for Senator Lambie to join with the coalition in repealing it was baffling. Well, we still don’t know why she voted that way as all she would say on Q&A was that it was a matter of ‘national security’ upon which she could not comment further and she asked the Australian people to trust her and all would be revealed in due course, but not now.
We do have one clue why Dutton does not want refugees on Manus island to come to Australia for medical treatment and that, quite simply, is because PNG would not have them back again and why should they ? These people are not PNG citizens, they are not guest workers, they do not have visas and they cannot be classed as ‘detainees’ as that is now illegal in PNG. So, were they to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment they would probably stay in Australia unless the government took up the New Zealand resettlement offer – on which they have been obstinately uncooperative – or sent them to Nauru. Or perhaps they would end up in a motel in Preston which seems to be the preferred coalition solution.
Chaos is no stranger to this coalition but, the mismanagement and bungling of asylum seeker policy and offshore indefinite detention has been the biggest ongoing administrative cock-up we have seen in this country for a long time and yet it goes on and on.
PS: Jacquie I think they conned you !
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