House debates

Wednesday, 24 July 2019


Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019; Second Reading

6:24 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. This bill will simply repeal the medevac legislation, which was passed by the previous parliament mere months ago. I remember this very well, as would the majority of other members who were present.

With respect to the medical treatment and transfer of people from PNG and Nauru, I say this plainly: Labor seeks to ensure that sick people get the medical care that they need. My colleagues on this side of chamber have always sought to ensure that the minister maintains the final discretion on medical transfers when it comes to matters of national security, public safety and character. Our objectives certainly have not changed. I fundamentally believe that we as a nation should always act in a humane manner. I fundamentally believe as a doctor that doctors should always act in the most appropriate manner to manage their patients and provide them with the best medical care possible.

The demonisation of these people and the blatant fear campaign surrounding these transfers is, to me, abhorrent and the lowest form of petty politics. Even the Law Council of Australia has strongly criticised this government for the fundamentally political pointscoring in the way they've managed this bill and others like it. We have seen false claims made by this government and Minister Dutton in relation to medical transfers. We've seen people demonised; we've seen people slandered. However, we know that medevac is necessary and that it is working.

Had the minister and this government had genuine concerns or legitimate proposals for improving the operation of medevac, the minister would have introduced amendments to the legislation. What we have here, however, is a government that is content with lowering the standard of political discourse in this nation, and it's simply intent on repealing this legislation and denying people their basic human rights.

We are only in the second sitting of the 46th Parliament and this coalition government's modus operandi would already suggest that they are intent on behaving in a manner that is consistent with fearmongering and the lowest-common-denominator politics that we saw in the 45th Parliament. The home affairs minister has not sought to amend the medevac legislation. He simply wants to return to the flawed medical transfer system that he originally presided over, a system that did not afford the refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing systems access to adequate and timely medical treatment. Again, I stress, we're only in the second sitting week of this new parliament, and the Prime Minister and Minister Dutton have demonstrated that they seek to continue to play petty politics with this issue rather than behave in the humane manner that Australians expect and the rest of the world expects.

This government would do well to remember the public discussion around this issue in the lead-up to the medevac legislation passing in February. Australia's offshore processing measures have been criticised by a wide variety of people and a wide variety of well-respected organisations, including the United Nations; Amnesty International; Medecins Sans Frontieres, for which my daughter works; the Australian Council for International Development; the Australian Medical Association, of which I've been a 40-year member; the Royal Australasian College of Physicians; the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons; the Human Rights Commission; Human Rights Watch; the New Zealand government; Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court; Papua New Guinea's Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare; and multiple member nations of the United Nations. This is disgraceful.

When the Pacific Solution was introduced in 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard received criticism from the Human Rights Watch. They stated: 'The recent legislation seriously contravenes Australia's obligations to non-citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, under international human rights and refugee law. As provided for in article 2 of the ICCPR, the obligation to respect and ensure rights to all persons, including all non-citizens, applies throughout Australia's territory and to all persons subject to Australia's jurisdiction.' This is not changed. They also say, 'We have already urged the US government in similar circumstances to amend the new legislation, at a minimum, to implement it in a manner that fully upholds the fundamental norms of international human rights and refugee law.'

Further to this, more recently it was stated as illegal by UN officials, including by UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, who warned that Australia 'may intentionally put lives at risk'. Nothing has changed.

The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled in 2016 that restricting the movement of asylum seekers who have committed no crime was unconstitutional. Australia's asylum seeker policies were heavily criticised in 2015 at a session of the UN's leading human rights body in Geneva, at which the US delegate stated:

We encourage Australia to enter humane treatment and respect for the human rights of asylum seekers, including those processed offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Nothing has changed. Similar criticisms were heard from many other countries, including Norway, Turkey, Canada, Fiji, France, Germany and Switzerland. These are just some of the damning criticisms that have come on a global scale in relation to the coalition's handling of this situation.

My friend Senator Keneally said in the other place on Monday that the offshore processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru have become a sign of the ongoing failures of this government and of its Minister for Home Affairs, with his ability to play petty politics with human lives. These facilities were set up as temporary regional processing centres six years ago. People have been there for over six years. The government and this minister will continue to try and blame Labor, but the reality is they've had six years at the helm and six years to fix the problem. It is under this coalition government that these centres have become places of indefinite detention against any human being's human rights. How did we get there? This is a result of six years of failure and inaction by this coalition government.

Minister Dutton is failing a basic test. He is failing to ensure that sick people get the care and attention that they need and are entitled to that we would feel entitled to ourselves. Unfortunately, it would appear that this is not as a result of incompetence or mismanagement; this is a deliberate act. This minister appears intent on performing cheap political stunts and scoring points off the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. We have a minister of the Crown who consistently manipulates, misrepresents and mischaracterises the truth for petty political gain. He is playing with people's lives—people who cannot defend themselves. This is a disgrace. I do not expect that there will be any change on the minister's part. He will not change; he has demonstrated that. And I think the way he behaves and the way he has tried to manipulate this bill and this legislation is politically disgraceful. It's morally disgraceful. It's inhumane.

Minister Dutton is failing a basic test. I repeat: he is failing to ensure that sick people get the care and attention that they need and are entitled to. They have not been charged with any crime. This is an act—an absolute travesty—that goes against any moral compass and he should be ashamed of it. I don't expect there'll be any evidence of humility or any act of contrition because he's done this, but I think as parliamentarians we should all be ashamed of it. We have a minister of the Crown who consistently manipulates and misrepresents.

There is no reason that this bill should be repealed. This government is intent on driving a wedge in the Australian electorate, pandering to the fearmongering perpetuated by the hard Right in this nation, rather than acting with integrity. The debate around medevac is a perfect example of this. Minister Dutton has repeatedly made false claims about this legislation, crying wolf every time Labor or experts explained and carefully articulated both the process and the need behind the medevac legislation.

Since this legislation was passed and given assent, there has been a grand total of just seven patients who have been transferred to Australia for treatment without the approval of either Minister Dutton or Minister Coleman. The government has approved around 90 transfers, and 20 cases have been referred to the Independent Health Advice Panel. The panel includes some of Australia's finest doctors. Of these 20 cases, the panel ultimately upheld the minister's decision not to transfer individuals on 13 occasions and overturned the minister's decision seven times. It's worth noting the panel's independence and the fact that the panel is made up of doctors chosen by the minister himself.

It is the government and the doctors specifically appointed by the government who control who is able to come to Australia under the medevac legislation. This is completely indisputable. However, the minister has time and time again cried wolf, seeking to make a political football out of this important legislation and, I repeat, playing politics with innocent people's lives.

The minister has even asserted that two doctors from Nimbin could force the government's hand—a deliberate untruth that he is telling the parliament. It speaks volumes about the minister's character and his willingness to further ostracise some of the most vulnerable people.

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Macarthur will resume his seat for the moment. The honourable member.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was listening carefully to the member for Macarthur. Surely he is crossing the boundaries in terms of reflecting on the Minister for Home Affairs in some of his remarks this afternoon.

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand what the honourable member is saying. I have been following it closely. I would say to the member for Macarthur he is sailing very close to the wind. I wouldn't sail any further in that direction. The member for Macarthur.

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand. I'm not a very good sailor at the best of times, but I will go no further! I think my point is appropriately made. I would say, however, that, every time the minister talks down our border security, one could argue that he is issuing an invitation to people smugglers and perpetuating the problem. The men and women who work across our national security agencies do a fantastic job, but their jobs are not made any easier by the minister's actions. At each and every opportunity, this minister, the Prime Minister and the government have sought to spread division. I think it's a great shame.

I condemn the government for bringing this legislation back to parliament. I'm utterly disappointed on a personal and professional basis that they'll continue to play political games with issues such as this, and I think it's just a great shame. I know that there are members across the chamber who agree with my opinion, and I think that reflection should be given to why this legislation was brought back to parliament.

6:37 pm

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

The Minister for Home Affairs, the member for Dickson, cannot be trusted to look after the health of vulnerable people in Australia's care. I'd like to talk about one story that illustrates why. The story is set out in a detailed judgement of the Federal Court of Australia. The facts have not been disputed by the Minister for Home Affairs. It is a desperately sad story, which I tell because it provides context to the bill now before the House. It is because of stories like the one that I am about to tell that we supported the medevac laws and it is why we still support them. There are many other stories like this one.

In January 2014, a mother, her young son, her adult son and her daughter-in-law were transferred to Nauru by the Australian government. The family had attempted to make it to Australia by boat after fleeing persecution in Iran. On 8 May 2018, after more than four years on Nauru, doctors employed by the minister's own department assessed the mother's risk of self-harm as moderate. When asked if she could keep herself safe, the mother told the doctors, 'Of course. I have my sons'. On 15 June 2018, after more than four years in detention, the mother's oldest son committed suicide. His wife, the mother's daughter-in-law, found the body in a tent they shared together. He was only 26 years old. On 26 July 2018, an Australian solicitor wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs on behalf of the mother, her child and her now-widowed daughter-in-law. The solicitor's email told the story of what had happened to the family in the immediate aftermath of the eldest son's suicide. Traumatised after five years spent in detention, and devastated by the death of her son, the mother had attempted suicide by cutting her wrists and strangling herself on 17 July 2018. Two days later, she repeatedly hit herself with rocks until she started to bleed. A short time later the boy, the mother's surviving son, tried to cut himself with a knife. Fortunately he was stopped by security. A few days later, he tried again and was fortunately stopped again. The boy said that he wanted to be with his brother.

For the first few days after her husband's death, the daughter-in-law sat on a mattress outside in the heat. The mattress was positioned next to a fence. On the other side of the fence, her husband's body was held in a container. She cried. She hit her chest and her head and stopped eating and drinking. The solicitor told the Minister for Home Affairs that the lives of her clients were clearly at risk. She told the minister that the care they needed was not, and could not be, provided on Nauru. She requested the immediate removal of her clients from Nauru so that they could be provided with urgent medical care in Australia. Neither the minister nor his office ever wrote back.

On 14 August 2018 the solicitor emailed the minister a second time with detailed mental health assessment reports by psychiatrists from Medecins Sans Frontieres in relation to the mother, the boy and the daughter-in-law. The reports detailed how the mother had declared her life had ended with the loss of her son. The mother had told psychiatrists, 'He was my son, my friend, my heart, my everything.' She also endured terrible guilt, describing herself as a horrible mother for fleeing from Iran with her sons to give them a better life, and now her son was dead, frozen in a refrigerator. She told doctors that she did not believe in God anymore.

The psychiatric facilities on Nauru were the same facilities that treated the son who had taken his own life. Psychiatrists on Nauru said that the mother and daughter-in-law needed care from specialised staff who were unrelated to the son's death. This was a matter of life or death. So the care that the mother and the daughter-in-law needed could not be provided on Nauru. Doctors said that the boy needed an inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric facility. There is no inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric facility on Nauru. The care that the boy needed could not be provided on Nauru. Neither the minister nor his office ever wrote back.

On 29 August 2018, the solicitor wrote to the minister again. The mental health of her clients had further deteriorated. The boy was refusing food. The mother was refusing food. The solicitor repeated her request to the minister. The family required an immediate transfer from the environment that was causing them harm. A lawyer for the minister told the solicitor, 'I have sought instructions.' But, once again, neither the minister nor his office ever wrote back.

On 13 September 2018 the solicitor sent yet another email to the minister. The health of her clients had deteriorated further. The boy left his room only once a day to go to the toilet. He no longer engaged with anyone except to tell the treating clinicians about how much he missed his brother. The family was receiving the most intense form of care available on Nauru. It was not enough. The email attached new medical reports by new doctors. It's unclear whether the minister, his office or his lawyers even opened the reports, let alone read them, because the email was ignored. Once again, neither the minister nor his office ever wrote back.

On 19 September 2018, the solicitor wrote to the minister for a fifth and final time. The solicitor repeated the advice of treating clinicians, that her clients required admission to inpatient facilities on an immediate basis, facilities which did not exist on Nauru. She repeated her request for the urgent removal of her clients. For the fifth time, the Minister for Home Affairs ignored her.

At 4.30 pm on 20 September 2018, the solicitor filed an application in the Federal Court of Australia on behalf of her clients. Less than 24 hours later, the Federal Court ordered the immediate transfer of the mother, the boy and the daughter-in-law to a location where they could receive the treatment they needed. It should not take many months, a suicide, multiple suicide attempts, countless medical reports and an application to the Federal Court of Australia, for vulnerable people in Australia's care to receive urgent medical assistance. But, in relation to the mother, her son and her daughter-in-law, the Federal Court said:

… the applicants had no choice but to commence proceedings seeking the relief they did in light of the fact that the Minister did not respond to a single letter that had been written requesting the urgent transfer of the applicants from Nauru.

The solicitor who wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs five times on her clients' behalf, and who was ignored five times, is not un-Australian. The Federal Court judge who ordered the family's immediate transfer to Australia for urgent medical care is not a hard Left activist judge. The doctors who recommended the family's immediate transfer to Australia over and over again, including the doctors employed by the minister's own department, are not activist doctors. The solicitor, the judge and the doctors were doing their jobs. The medevac laws merely require this callous and incompetent minister to do his.

In 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, Australia's now Prime Minister and the now Minister for Home Affairs refused to entertain the idea of allowing the family I have spoken about today, and other families like them, to be resettled in New Zealand under a standing offer negotiated by Julia Gillard in 2013. Had they done so, there would be nobody left in offshore detention today. If the member for Dickson, the Minister for Home Affairs, and his colleagues did their jobs by negotiating other third-country resettlement options, vulnerable people would not have been languishing for six years in indefinite detention and requiring medical transfers. The medevac laws should not be necessary, but this minister and this government make them necessary, and they must not be repealed.

6:48 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say the member for Isaacs, the Shadow Attorney-General, is a hard act to follow. We've heard a lot of debate here in this place—much of it academic and political—but to hear such a harrowing story really, really does put into context just what we're dealing with and just what we're talking about here. There were, to me, some unbelievable facts expounded in that story just now told by the member for Isaacs. The fact that the minister did not respond a single time to any of the letters that were sent to him by the people acting on behalf of this family leads me to believe that these are people that the government has forgotten and wants to continue to forget. This motion that we see before us today, this migration amendment, which the government has termed 'repairing medical transfers' isn't at all about repairing anything. It's not about repairing a single thing. It's about repealing something that works so that they can continue to treat these people as people who they can just forget.

I want to use this time here in parliament to explore some of the more substantive questions around the purpose of this bill and the government's agenda in trying to pass this bill. Quite frankly, I'm looking at this bill and the only purpose I can see is to undo a process that was put in place and that, thus far, has worked very well but that also, as the member for Isaacs just pointed out with the story that he told, was absolutely necessary. So what are we talking about here? What are we talking about with this bill? First of all, we're not talking about thousands of people flooding our shores, pretending to be gravely ill just so they can step foot into an Australian hospital. No, we're not talking about that. We're not talking about so many people rushing to take advantage of such a weakened border security that the government has to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to reopen Christmas Island for a photo opportunity. That's not what we're talking about.

Since the passing of the medevac bill, the government has approved around 90 transfers, and 20 of those cases have been referred to the Independent Health Advice Panel. Of those 20 cases, the panel upheld the minister's decision not to transfer the individual 13 times and overturned the minister's decision just seven times. There's no hint here at all of thousands of people flooding our shores; no hint here at all of a need to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre; and no hint here at all of Australia being bombarded by people who are trying somehow to pull the wool over our eyes by self-harming.

What are we talking about here? We're not talking about security, because all of those seven patients who were transferred to Australia without ministerial approval, where the Independent Health Advice Panel overturned the minister's decision—remember, there were just seven of them—were not rejected on security grounds. The minister did not reject them on security grounds or on character concerns. I repeat: not rejected by the minister because of security concerns but on medical grounds.

These individuals were only transferred after being assessed by a panel of doctors that the minister himself appointed, including the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and the Surgeon General of Australian Border Force. That means that every other asylum seeker or refugee that has come to Australia for urgent medical care has been approved by either Minister Dutton or Minister Coleman. So, if we're not talking about thousands of people flooding our shores pretending to be sick and we're not talking about security, perhaps we're talking about two doctors from Nimbin. Perhaps that's what we're talking about. Are we talking about two doctors from Nimbin deciding who comes here? That is yet another false claim by the minister because, at every step of this process outlined in the medevac bill, through every measure of this bill, the government, or government-appointed doctors, control who comes to Australia.

We're also not talking about repairing medical transfers as this bill suggests, and I believe that this is the biggest misrepresentation and manipulation in this bill that the government is trying to put forward. We are talking about the minister seeking to revert back to a flawed medical transfer system—a medical transfer system that allowed a family to experience such grave medical concerns and not get the medical attention that they are entitled to because they are under our guardianship, a flawed medical system that's failing to provide adequate and timely medical care to refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing centres. Time and time again, Labor has had to explain this process and why it is needed, only to have the minister stand up and make false claims about the legislation—using misrepresentation, using fear, using falsities to construct a straw man argument that, somehow, providing essential medical care to people who are under our guardianship, through a rigorous process of approvals, where the minister has the ability to reject applications on security grounds and where a panel of doctors, appointed by the minister, can make a determination based on medical grounds, presents a security risk. Very simply, it does not.

This entire bill is based on misrepresentation, this entire bill is based on falsehoods, this entire bill is based on manipulation, and this entire bill is based on the politics of fear that has, time and time and time again, sought to divide Australia by demonising people. But, worse than demonising, it treats them like the forgotten people; it treats them like they don't matter—not even answering a letter from a lawyer raising grave concerns about the health and the mental health of an entire family who have already fled persecution and have been in detention for six years.

I know that my colleagues have spoken at length about this, and I really, really do hope that the government heed the words that have been spoken here today, in this place, about this bill. I hope that the government listen to the story that was told by the member for Isaacs about this family. I hope that they find it within their hearts to ensure that never happens again, and the way to ensure that never happens again is to leave this bill to do that job, leave this bill to ensure that people like this family get the medical help that they need, because they are under our guardianship, because we have a responsibility to do that and because, before medevac, the system wasn't working.

6:57 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm going to begin and end my contribution by making the same simple point: the medevac law, passed earlier this year in the 45th Parliament, has allowed desperate and damaged people to receive urgent and necessary medical care on the advice of highly qualified Australian medical professionals appointed by the minister and it does so with due regard to any reasonable security concerns. There isn't a reasonable basis for removing a process that allows the medical evacuation of people who need the urgent medical attention that they're not getting. The member for Isaacs gave a brilliant example earlier of the failures of the system, the failures of the minister and the literally grave consequences that have followed those failures. It's only possible to understand this bill as a kind of narrow-minded tit for tat. The medevac laws were passed against the government's wishes, so they have to be removed. They were passed in defiance of the member for Dickson's kind of all-powerful bleak vision of impending apocalypse, so they have to be removed. They don't sit with his insistence on pretending that only by being oblivious to the care of people in offshore detention and only by conduct that is mean and cruel and confected in its kind of cartoonish toughness is this country kept safe, and that is ridiculous. That's why these laws apparently have to be removed. It's not how we should make policy and laws in this place. It's petty, it's cruel and it will do harm.

No-one who turns their mind to what the medevac law has enabled could seriously want to see that process removed. Despite all the hyperventilating about what would occur if the laws were passed, the only thing that has occurred is that seriously unwell asylum seekers have received proper medical care. I'm not surprised that there has hardly been a government member who has spoken in support of the bill whose purpose is to get rid of medical evacuations on the advice of medical professionals. All of us in this place know that there are people in offshore detention who are seriously and acutely unwell. They haven't had and don't have access to appropriate medical care.

The 2018 report from the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International noted:

… the men sent to PNG are being broken, as their physical and mental health rapidly decline. Some have died. Others have become permanently disabled and one man has become blind. Many are suffering from chronic illnesses.

In 2016, the UNHCR found that 88 per cent of those on Manus Island were suffering from depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder, which were found in 'the highest recorded rates of any surveyed population'. We have to ask ourselves: is it really surprising that men, women and children who are in offshore detention on an indefinite basis are suffering that kind of chronic and severe mental ill health in particular? It shouldn't be. They're people who have fled persecution. They've experienced trauma. Some have experienced physical violence, torture or rape. They have fled war or civil war. They've left their homes and homelands, fearing for their lives and the lives of their families. They've fled with nothing and they've left friends and family behind.

These are circumstances that it would be hard for most people in this country to take hold of and really grasp, but they are circumstances that many families in Australia have experienced or are connected to. Indeed, there are people in this place whose families came to Australia in circumstances not all that different. We're a migrant nation. Throughout our modern history we've received refugees and people otherwise fleeing the aftermath of war and conflict.

I honestly can't imagine what it would be like to be in serious fear of my life and at the same time have to accept that there's nowhere I can turn and no protection from local authorities or government or the law; in fact, those things are often the source of the threat. But surely all of us can understand that people who have been through that experience—fleeing Nazi Germany, fleeing the Khmer Rogue, fleeing the Taliban, fleeing any number of conflicts that have occurred and are occurring—would seek asylum from those conditions if they possibly could.

The people on Manus and Nauru have been waiting for that asylum for six years and, in some cases, they've been seeking asylum for longer than that. On top of past trauma and persecution, they have suffered, and they continue to suffer, the uncertainty and stress and hopelessness of indefinite detention. They're separated from family. They're detained. They're effectively incarcerated. They desperately want to be resettled, to recover and to get on with their lives, yet it seems that they have less and less hope of that occurring. Their lives have been trauma, dislocation, detention, isolation and hopelessness. Taken all together, that is a recipe for mental ill health, and it's no great surprise it's producing serious mental ill health—illnesses that are as acute and severe as you would want to imagine. People are hurting themselves. Children are hurting themselves. They don't want to be alive anymore in the conditions they experience.

In September 2018, there were still 109 children on Nauru. A joint report from the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre noted:

Children as young as 7 and 12 are experiencing repeated incidents of suicide attempts, dousing themselves in petrol, and becoming catatonic.

Last year, in the aftermath the Wentworth by-election, the government began moving children and families from Nauru. I think it is a terribly sad comment on how we respond to the clear evidence of harm and the clear prospect of preventable harm that it took a by-election loss for the government to make that happen. But I'm glad that something shifted.

Children who have lived most or all of their life in detention are seriously sick. Thankfully, some of them are now getting proper health care. The Independent Health Advice Panel has said:

There is no access to high-quality inpatient psychiatric care in Nauru and patients with severe mental illness and at high risk of suicide should be transferred to a hospital with appropriate inpatient psychiatric care.

I know there were children from Nauru who received inpatient care for acute mental ill health in WA late last year on that basis. There were kids in the new Perth Children's Hospital—a young child and a parent in a locked ward with an Australian Border Force or Serco employee stationed at the door. You're not in that kind of place unless you have been assessed by Australian professionals as being a child whose survival is at risk. I know everyone in this place cares about the wellbeing of children. We all acknowledge the need to do better when it comes to mental health care, especially for Aboriginal kids. And we need to do better for those who are still in offshore detention centres.

The medevac bill, passed in the 45th Parliament, passed in this chamber only a few months ago, was one small, necessary, sensible, compassionate, Christian step in that direction. Allowing the men, women and children who are or have been in offshore detention to receive appropriate medical care through a proper process does not in any way affect the security or safety of Australians. That is an enormously serious topic. If you respect that, if you seriously say that the highest priority of leadership and of government is the safety of the Australian people, you should never stand up and trail that about in defence of what is being done here. It is a serious duty. It should not be used by a government or by a minister who simply wants to make himself out to be the toughest, baddest person who ever walked around. There is no courage in that. It is ridiculous, and we see it in here every day.

So far there have been 77 transfers, with 19 cases referred to the Independent Health Advice Panel, which was appointed by the government. Of those referred cases, the minister's challenge on health grounds has been upheld on 12 occasions and overturned on seven occasions. The minister has not used his power to deny any transfer on the basis of national security, public safety or character grounds. He has never sought to use that power which he has. In other words, the system is working. People in desperate ill health and on the brink of survival finally have the opportunity, on medical advice, to get the kind of health care that they desperately need.

So I end as I began: the medevac law passed earlier this year, in the 45th Parliament, allows—and has allowed—desperate and damaged people to receive urgent and necessary medical care on the advice of highly qualified Australian medical professionals appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, and it does so with due and proper regard to any reasonable security concerns. There is no reasonable basis to change that. When we vote on it shortly I really hope that those opposite hold on to what they are doing, because they are turning their back on a sensible piece of law that has enabled an absolutely desperately needed process for people who are hurting themselves and who are dying because they are so mentally unwell. There's no reasonable basis on which to take away that process. There's no reasonable basis for this bill. The medevac system should not be changed. Thank you.

7:09 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak against the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. I speak against it because I'm here to represent moderates who care, and they are tired of this kind of action. I fully agree with what the member for Mayo said earlier. The parliament has already dealt with this issue, and the legislation passed by the parliament in February this year is working. The medevac law was needed in response to the refusal of the government to medically evacuate even critically ill children. The law puts decisions about the medical care of people in the hands of doctors, where it belongs, not politicians.

The law is working as intended, enabling critically ill refugees access to the medical and psychiatric care they need while being done at a steady and responsible pace, with no impact on a national security. Ninety-six people have been approved since it was passed—hardly the influx the government claimed at the time. Australia has a responsibility towards the people it has placed on Nauru and Manus Island, the majority of whom have been assessed to be refugees.

We cannot wash our hands of these people and hope the problem will go away. The medevac law enables people who Australia has a duty of care for to access a suitable level of medical assessment and treatment not available to them on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The medevac law does not allow asylum seekers brought to Australia for such treatment to stay here indefinitely. At no time has the government lost control of our borders because of the medevac law. In addition, the law gives the minister the unreviewable power to refuse applications on national security grounds and to refuse anyone convicted of a serious criminal offence. So why is the repeal of a law that is clearly working such a priority for the government? We are talking about just over 600 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. We are spending more than $573,000 per person per year on holding people indefinitely offshore, many of whom are very sick.

It's time for sensible politics. The Australian people want us to spend taxpayer dollars more sensibly. Spending more time on a bill of a limited application out of spite and, I can only assume, wounded pride is not it. It's now quite clear that the other border protection measures that the government has implemented are working. The boats have stopped, and the medevac law has not provided the pull factor that the government claimed it would.

The real question that should be before the House is: what is the government's plan to settle the wretched 600-odd souls languishing in offshore detention for over six years? I call on the Prime Minister to show these poor people the compassion that he talked about a few days ago. Repealing this medevac law is only convincing moderates like me and the many who voted for me in my electorate that he and this government are not understanding and are incapable of separating right from wrong.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Scullin has moved, as an amendment, that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the member for Scullin be agreed to.

7:25 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that this bill be read a second time.