Senate debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Bills

Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018; Second Reading

1:08 pm

Photo of Tim StorerTim Storer (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

The crisis surrounding the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG has gone on too long. The United Nations describes the situation as 'dire and untenable'. Doctors Without Borders describe the situation as 'beyond desperate'. We must heed those warnings. Twelve people have died in offshore detention since the regime began five years ago. There are possibly—it's not clear—1,224 people detained on Nauru and PNG and, according to the latest reports, 12 children, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors. The vast majority of these people have been found to be refugees. Many of them have been in these camps for at least five years. A coronial inquest into the death of Hamid Kehazaei, who died after being medevaced to Queensland from PNG in 2014, found his death from septicaemia was preventable and was due to failure to provide appropriate medical treatment and transfer to specialist care.

I also note the revelation from ABC's 7.30 of the existence of a government committee, the Transitory Persons Committee, a body comprised of senior public servants in the Department of Home Affairs. And, according to minutes of a meeting in August last year, one member of the committee noted that the department was coordinating to ensure the new contract with the international health and medical services to provide offshore health care does not mention 'Australian standard'. That would suggest that the department at least considered that care for asylum seekers need not meet Australian medical standards. This is just one argument for supporting the amendment I will put forward with Senator McKim.

According to authoritative reports, there have been two more suicide attempts in Manus in the last 48 hours, and there is little doubt that there will be more. We must act now. Our amendment will minimise this cruel and punitive regime. It will return decisions about the health of asylum seekers to those who should always have been making them in the first place: to relevant and independent doctors rather than public servants and politicians.

The amendment I propose establishes an independent health panel to review the available medical evidence in light of any refusal by the minister to authorise a transfer. In the interests of transparency, the amendment also requires the minister to table notifications in parliament of any transfer for medical or psychiatric reasons. To safeguard the review process, the amendment will add a provision for ministerial discretion to refuse the transfer on medical grounds in any case where the minister reasonably believes that the transfer of the person to Australia would compromise national security.

This is consistent with the perspective of Home Affairs whistleblower Shaun Hanns, a strong believer in border protection and boat turn-backs, that 'acts of kindness', as he has called them, have not led to more boats heading to Australia. He argued that it is demonstrated that the current boat turn-back policy alone is a sufficient deterrent. Nothing changed, for example, in 2014, when nearly half the people who had arrived in Australia between 2013 and 2014 were allowed to stay in the community. Nothing changed in 2016, when the resettlement deal with the US was announced. Hanns pointed out:

What matters to asylum seekers is not what eventually happened to people who got on a boat five years ago.

What matters is what happened to the last boat that made the attempt. And for the past five years that has been a prompt return …

to where it came from.

The approach we are proposing is also what the public wants. A YouGov Galaxy poll conducted by News Corp Sunday papers in October found that 79 per cent of voters want the government to transfer children and their families from Nauru. Removing asylum seekers from offshore detention was also identified by the member for Wentworth as one of the key reasons for her by-election victory. I would like to thank the member for Wentworth for working with me to bring this amendment before the parliament. It is proof, I believe, of the valuable role independents can play in our parliament. She has shouldered much of the burden of negotiating this amendment, ably supported by the excellent staff in her office.

I would also like to thank Labor, the Greens, Centre Alliance and the crossbench for their courtesy and consideration in this process. I recognise it is a difficult issue, and I applaud their courage in stepping up to support this initiative. I also acknowledge that, for a decade or more, the Greens have been at the forefront of efforts to bring offshore detention to an end. I thank Senator McKim for co-sponsoring the amendments and the motion required for this amendment to be considered. The time has come for all parliamentarians of goodwill to unite to bring an end to this crisis. Thank you.

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