Senate debates

Monday, 2 December 2019


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

6:25 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to continue my speech on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. The medevac legislation should clearly not be repealed, because it is working exactly as it was designed to do—to ensure that people's medical treatment is actually directed by doctors, not by ministers and bureaucrats. But whatever the future of the medevac legislation, we need to bring an end to this terrible chapter in our country's history around offshore detention, where innocent people who committed no crime, who stretched out a hand to our country and asked for help, have been treated in the most reprehensible of ways. We need to do that as soon as we possibly can. We need to act to resolve the many thousands of cases of people in the offshore detention cohort, people whose futures remain uncertain, no matter the outcome of this medevac legislation. We cannot say that we have brought this dark and bloody chapter in our country's story to an end until we have a royal commission into offshore and onshore immigration detention, so that we can make sure not only that we learn the necessary lessons but that something so terrible and contrary to our country's values can never happen again. (Time expired)

6:26 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 is a critical piece of legislation, but not for the reasons that those opposite would have us believe. According to medevac proponents, the medevac laws were designed to address, to quote the former member for Wentworth, an urgent medical crisis in Australia's offshore detention centres. The legislation has, to quote the Greens, saved lives. In the last few months, we've seen a swell of evidence indicating that the very premise for the medevac changes—that people's lives are at stake—is a flawed one. Let's consider the evidence, because the facts are what we need to focus on in this debate—not emotional and emotive grandstanding from other senators, but the facts.

At Senate estimates last month, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Major General Craig Furini, updated the committee on the number of people who had been transferred to Australia under the medevac laws. Out of the 135 people brought to Australia as at the date of that hearing, only 13 of them had been to hospital at all. Only thirteen people out of the 135 regarded so grievously ill that they could not be treated in any other way but to have been brought for in-patient care in Australia. Fewer than one in 10 of those people transferred to Australia had a serious enough illness to warrant being in hospital. Of the 13 hospitalised, nine of them were in for a period of less than seven days, and none remained in hospital at the time the evidence was given. Don't forget: all 135 of these people were ticked off by two doctors as requiring in-patient hospital care necessitating their transfer, yet fewer than one in 10 of them actually became in-patients. Five of them refused treatment once they got to Australia, including the treatment for which they were specifically referred, for conditions like dermatitis, abdominal pain, dental pain and urological disease. One individual claimed an ongoing dental condition prevented him from eating solid foods, yet when he got to Australia, suddenly he no longer required that dental treatment. A further 43 people refused an induction check, chest X-ray or pathology as part of their screening into country.

This exposes the conflict that is at the heart of the debate. Labor and the Greens stand in here and say that the medevac changes were all about, and simply about, making sure sick people get medical care when doctors say they need it. But why, then, do so few actually need hospital medical care when they get here?

Proceedings suspended from 18 : 30 to 19 : 30

We are told that these asylum seekers must come to Australia because they lack adequate medical care in offshore processing countries. So, again, let's let the evidence do the talking. In Papua New Guinea, there is one healthcare worker for every 14 people who are being kept there in offshore detention and one mental health professional for every 37 detainees. In Nauru, there is one healthcare worker for every six people and one mental health professional for every 25 detainees. These are numbers that many of my rural and regional Queensland constituents would be envious about. They could only dream of getting those kinds of ratios.

Members of the Independent Health Advice Panel, IHAP, have also provided a positive assessment of the physical facilities at Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby. The IHAP have even found that the treatment available at the PIH was adequate for patients in many ways—not all, but many. In its first quarterly report, by way of example, it states:

The IHP was reasonably confident that acute inpatient mental health treatment can be provided at PHI

The IHAP also notes, 'there are significant numbers of mental health workers' available in Nauru.

Those opposite want us to believe that before the medevac legislation came in the government was blocking medical transfers left and right, but that's also wrong. Data provided by the department shows that between November 2012 and 31 July 2019, 1,343 people were transferred to Australia from offshore detention for medical treatment. There was 717 people who were transferred for treatment themselves, with 626 accompanying family members. The difference though is that, before the medevac bill, the minister had a clear power to return people to offshore detention after that treatment was complete. The medevac amendments took that away.

I know some people in the chamber will say differently. I know Senator Keneally has today said to this chamber that there is a power of return, but the reality is that that is no more than a theoretical legal argument at this point in time. It's based on an interpretation of what the word 'temporary' means that hasn't been confirmed by any court and that isn't expressly provided for in the act as it currently stands. So it can't really be more than theory or speculation, as at today.

Those opposite argue that, to quote the Greens, 'Decisions about medical care should be made by medical experts, not politicians or bureaucrats.' They seem to believe that decisions as important as these are made in some kind of departmental vacuum, void of professional medical opinion until these changes were made. But, in fact, two members of the IHAP, Dr Brendan Murphy and Dr Parbodh Gogna, were assisting and advising departmental officials on medical decisions well before the medevac changes were brought through. Somewhat ironically, the passage of the medevac bill took Dr Murphy and Dr Gogna out of this process when they were appointed to the IHAP.

So the medevac laws aren't saving lives, at least in the sense that those opposite want us to believe to justify what is flawed legislation. Medevac isn't giving refugees access to medical care that they couldn't already receive in offshore processing. It isn't clearing out a bottleneck of medical transfer requests, and it's definitely not involving medical professionals in making these decisions for the first time. They were already involved. So, what is medevac doing then?

The medevac legislation is putting our strong border protection regime at risk. All of the 179 people who have been transferred to Australia to date under these medevac laws—that was the number as of Friday—still remain in this country. The medevac bill simply has no return provision for these people even when it's determined that they don't need further medical treatment. So let's be honest about its real purpose. Its real purpose is to dismantle the offshore processing regime, pushed by people whose political disposition is for open borders. There's really no other way you can cut it, not in circumstances where one in 10 of the people transferred for urgent medical care went to hospital and the other nine in 10 went, 'No, thanks,' on arrival.

Those opposite say the medevac bill doesn't provide a pathway to residency because it only applies to those who were already in offshore processing countries at the time it passed and not to future arrivals. In a factual sense, that's right, but it's not the point. If people smugglers can point to the situation here today and say to their potential customer base, 'All 175 of the people transferred to Australia can't be removed or, at the very least, haven't been removed,' then desperate and vulnerable people will scrimp and scrape whatever they can and pay to come here. And then those very people smugglers can boast a 100 per cent success rate for those people who are transferred to Australia. No doubt that's good for business. The price is the people in refugee camps far away, people without resources, people who can't afford to pay a people smuggler, often the most vulnerable women and children in the world, being denied the ability to come to Australia.

The medevac bill compromises the security of our borders. At estimates, Major General Furini stated that six medevac transferees to Australia have come here despite concerns about their security appropriateness and that two of the people approved and awaiting transfer are of character concern. The Minister for Home Affairs did not have the power to block those eight people from coming into this country. So, when people say in their contributions to this debate that the minister's still got all the powers he needs to stop unsuitable people coming to this country, those eight people are proof that this doesn't stop people about whom there are character or security concerns from coming into this country.

Last month, the Minister for Home Affairs was forced to use his ministerial powers to block a violent Iranian asylum seeker from coming to Australia with his medical transferee daughter. The father had a history of violent and criminal behaviour in Nauru and in his home country as well, including assault, importing and distributing drugs and running a prostitution ring. His daughter was assessed as needing psychological treatment in Australia, but she refused to come without her father. So, despite the father not needing medical care, despite his unsuitability, the treating doctor gave him the tick of approval to come to Australia. Just last week, we had reports of a man accused of sexually assaulting a child and assaulting his own family members in domestic violence cleared to come to Australia. The government couldn't block his transfer because he hadn't been sentenced to at least 12 months in jail, which is the threshold set out in the medevac legislation. This requirement is significantly narrower than the character test against which all other people who want to come to Australia are assessed. These are the kinds of individuals the medevac bill allows into the Australian community with no means, no mechanism and no clear provision in the act to send them back to offshore processing countries after treatment.

In real terms, the medevac bill risks restarting the boats. It's plain and simple, and here's why: Operation Sovereign Borders works because it has three equally important limbs. I like to think of them as like legs on a stool. It takes all three of them to be effective, but knock one leg off that three-legged stool and it falls. It's worth defending though because it works. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, we need all three limbs: turnbacks where it's safe to do so, offshore processing and temporary protection visas. If there's one thing that the period of the Rudd government showed it was that if you knock one of those legs off the stool, the consequences are really very serious. We on this side are proud of our record at the border. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, with all three legs of that stool, there have been zero deaths at sea—none, not a single soul lost in the dangerous act of coming to Australia in a leaky people-smuggler's boat. We have closed 17 detention centres that had to be opened because of Labor's mismanagement of this very important issue and we have removed every single one of the children from detention. Those opposite have an awful lot of front to preach to this chamber about compassion, given their record on the issue.

So let's remind ourselves what Labor's period in government meant. The only reason anyone is on Manus Island or Nauru is that Labor lost control of our borders. When they entered government in 2007, there were only four illegal maritime arrivals in detention and not one of them was a child. But without any policy forethought, Labor proceeded to unwind the successful and effective Howard government border protection measures, and the results were nothing short of disastrous. So here is a reminder for everybody about what happened under Labor's stewardship: 50,000 people arrived in this country on over 800 people-smuggler boats; 1,200 people died at sea, that we know of—it could be more. While I feel deeply sad about the 11 people itemised by Senator McKim tonight, I have to look at those 11 people with sadness but compare them to the 1,200 we lost at sea under a different policy regime.

Under Labor, 8,000 children were put in detention, 17 onshore detention centres had to be opened and two regional processing centres had to be opened. In addition to all of that, there was a $16 billion border protection budget blowout, borne by every single Australian taxpayer. So we must never return to Labor's policies, which resulted with chaos at our border, deaths at sea and children in detention. All the rhetoric in the world about compassion stands in a very uncomfortable contrast with the record we have before us, which is not compassionate, which is not kind, which is a weak cruelty upon those most vulnerable.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, we have taken back control of our border from the people smugglers. And we need to maintain the effectiveness of Operation Sovereign Borders by making sure that all three legs of the stool are sturdy and strong. I support zero deaths at sea. I support a higher capacity for Australia to offer refuge to those most vulnerable, those in refugee camps who can't afford to pay a people smuggler, who can't afford to make the journey by plane or boat or any number of expensive means to find themselves in a place where they can make the final payment to a smuggler to get on a boat to Australia. I support no children in Manus and Nauru. I support the ability of this government to have increased the humanitarian program to 18,750 people—more than any other government that's gone before—and that has provided a generous humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, taking in an additional 12,000 Syrian people as refugees, all things that are only possible because of the effectiveness of Operation Sovereign Borders, things Labor could not do because they lost control.

Today there are no refugees in immigration detention offshore in the sense that might be in the public psyche. It's not like a little prison. These are people living freely in offshore protection countries within the community, able to move around freely, able to work, able to fall in love, able to get married, able to start a business. They do all of those things. There are 213 people who remain in Papua New Guinea and 258 who remain in Nauru, and, as I've mentioned, none of them are children. But the fact is that, as of Friday last week, 179 people have been transferred to Australia under the medevac laws. Only one in 10 of those, despite being signed off by two doctors, ever needed to go to hospital. None of them remain in hospital. These people, who needed so desperately critical care on the assessment of these doctors who assured us they were apolitical, spent at most less than a week in hospital. Funnily enough, none of them have gone back to offshore processing. None of them have played by the rules. Every single one of them have gone and got a court order to assure them that they won't be sent back.

I think that really does show us what it's all about. It's about dismantling the offshore processing regime. It's an ideological response for people who, in their gut, just don't like this. Part of me gets that. It's not comfortable. It's not easy. But, when I compare the real but much smaller hardship of the people in offshore detention to the 1,200 people who lost their lives at sea—a number that would be much, much higher had Operation Sovereign Borders not been implemented—for me the choice is not so hard. I'll be supporting this bill and I urge those on the crossbench to do the same. They can do it because it's what the facts support or they can do it because it's the compassionate thing, but either way it's the right thing for this country and it's the right thing for the most vulnerable people in the world.

7:46 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise and join with Senator Keneally, who has spoken already in this debate. I rise on behalf of Labor to say that we will be opposing the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019, in essence, for one good reason: this bill is utterly unnecessary. As I will go through in my contribution, this bill is working and it delivers on a core Australian principal, which is that, if you are sick, no matter who you are, no matter what your race and no matter what your wallet, you will get medical care. That's what medevac was about, and it remains as relevant now as it was when the bill was passed.

What does this bill that the government is now introducing seek to do? Firstly, it seeks to repeal the medevac legislation—and, of course, they were amendments made to the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill, which was passed by this parliament in February 2019 and given royal assent on 1 March 2019. Secondly, this bill seeks to amend the Migration Act to extend existing powers in relation to people transferred to Australia under the medical transfer provisions, allowing for their removal from Australia or return to a regional processing country once they no longer need to be in Australia for the temporary purpose for which they were brought.

I note in passing that a number of submitters to the Senate inquiry on this bill argued that the government does maintain the power to transfer a person back to a regional processing country. Having undertaken some litigation in this area in my previous life as a lawyer, I can also say that there is no doubt that the Migration Act gives the power to the government, as it currently stands, to transfer people back to a regional processing country if those people are brought here for medical treatment. If you don't believe me, I refer you to some of the evidence to the Senate inquiry, from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, where the deputy director, Dr Maria O'Sullivan, stated:

Whilst there is no explicit provision governing the return of this particular cohort as a matter of technical and legal requirements, as a matter of normal statutory interpretation the general removal provisions in the Migration Act would operate in relation to this cohort.

Put another way, if someone is brought to Australia from Manus or Nauru for medical treatment, the government already has the power under the Migration Act to transfer that person back to Manus or Nauru once they have received their medical treatment. So there is no need whatsoever to amend the Migration Act, as is attempted via this bill. That's all I'll say in relation to that second aspect—the proposal to amend the Migration Act.

I want to spend the rest of my contribution on the core part of this bill and its intent to repeal the medevac legislation. Labor has always had two objectives with respect to the medical transfer of people from Manus and Nauru, and from Papua New Guinea more broadly. We put forward these two objectives when the medevac legislation was originally debated here earlier this year, and these have always been our objectives—then and to this day. Those two objectives have been, firstly, to ensure that sick people get the medical care they need. It's hard to imagine that there is a principle that is more Australian. If you're thinking about Australian values and Australian principles, it's hard to think of one that is more basic and more core to the Australian psyche than ensuring that sick people get the medical care that they need—no matter what's in their pocket, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from and no matter what their race, people get the medical care they need. I'm very proud of the fact that that is something that differentiates us from, for instance, the United States of America, where we know that accessibility to health care is very much dependent on how much you've got in your pocket. We don't stand for that in Australia. What we stand for in Australia is the right of everyone, no matter who they are, to get the health care that they need, when they need it and in the form that they need it. So that's the first of the objectives that Labor has had in relation to the medical transfer of people from Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The second principle, which, again, we put forward when this legislation was originally debated earlier this year, and which we hold to now, is that it's important to ensure that the Minister for Home Affairs has final discretion over medical transfers on national security, public safety or character grounds. I will just say in passing that, having been a little bit involved in negotiations around the original medevac legislation earlier this year, this is something that some advocates didn't want. Some advocates were arguing that Labor should vote to give the final decision about these transfers to doctors, but it was important to Labor, as a party of government, that these matters ultimately be decisions for the minister. That's why we voted the way that we did back then, when the legislation was put through, and that's why we continue to believe that it's important that the minister has final discretion over medical transfers on national security, public safety or character grounds.

Our views on these matters have not changed. Importantly, the legislation as it currently stands—the legislation that this government now wants to repeal—does both of these things. What this legislation, as it currently stands, does is ensure that sick people get the medical care that they need and ensures that it's the minister who has the final discretion over medical transfers on national security, public safety or character grounds. That's why this legislation works. That's why this legislation is not the Armageddon that various government ministers, right up to the Prime Minister, said it would be. That's why it's working to this day and that's why Labor continues to support it. In the face of repeated false claims by Minister Dutton, the Prime Minister and other government ministers about medevac we have not yielded on this matter, because we believe that medevac is necessary and that it's working. It delivers on those two objectives that Labor put forward when the legislation was initially debated, and it continues to do so now.

Let's just dig for a little bit into how this medevac process works. I think there has been a lot said by the minister and the Prime Minister which is patently untrue about how this bill and this process work, so it's important to get the facts on the record. For the medevac process to be enlivened, two or more treating doctors for a patient in Papua New Guinea or Nauru must advise the secretary of home affairs that the patient needs to be brought to Australia for medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment. So it needs two doctors—two independent doctors—who, frankly, have more qualifications to make these decisions than anyone in this chamber or anyone in the government. Two doctors must certify to the minister that the patient needs to be transferred to Australia for medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment. And that only can occur when appropriate medical care is not available in Papua New Guinea or in Nauru. We've already had government senators—and I'm sure there'll be many more—try to argue that these are for things like toothaches and waking up in a cold sweat. That is not true. What is required is that two doctors certify that appropriate medical care is not available in Papua New Guinea or in Nauru.

Secondly, even if that does happen, the minister always retains the power to deny the transfer of an individual on national security, public safety or character grounds. This can occur if: the patient has a substantial criminal record, and the minister believes that transfer would expose the Australian community to serious risk of criminal conduct; the minister suspects that the transfer of the person to Australia would be prejudicial to security within the meaning of the ASIO Act, including because of an adverse security assessment; or ASIO advises the minister that transfer of the person to Australia may be prejudicial to security and the threat cannot be mitigated.

So all of these nonsense claims from Minister Dutton, from the Prime Minister, from other ministers and from other senators that someone can just easily come here if they're a security threat are absolutely not possible under the terms of this bill. And, frankly, it can only happen if the minister isn't doing his job. I can understand why some members of the government might have concerns that this minister might not be doing his job. He's been shown on a number of occasions not to be able to do his job properly. Let's look at the Paladin incident. Let's look at all sorts of other things that he has overseen in his administration of this portfolio.

So if anyone from the government is getting up and saying that someone can be brought here even though they're a security threat, what they're actually doing is saying that their own minister, Minister Dutton, is not capable of exercising the powers he has in his own legislation. He has every power necessary to stop someone being transferred here if they're a security risk, if they've got a substantial criminal record and the minister believes that there's a serious risk of criminal conduct in the Australian community. And they are exactly the things that Labor insisted on in the original legislation. That's why they're there. That's why Labor continues to support them. We do think the minister should have the power to stop someone being brought here if they are a security risk—and that's what this bill does.

If the minister denies a transfer on health grounds only—if there is not a security concern but the minister believes that the health grounds given for an individual to be transferred aren't sufficient—the minister must inform the Independent Health Advice Panel as soon as practicable. Within 72 hours the panel must conduct a further clinical assessment and inform the minister that the minister's decision to deny someone a transfer on health grounds is confirmed or that the transfer has been approved. So who is this panel? There's a panel set up to review a decision of the minister if he decides to not allow someone's transfer. Again, this is not some tin-pot group of people who are part of some grand conspiracy to undermine Australia's border protection regime. This Independent Health Advice Panel includes some of Australia's most highly qualified and experienced medical practitioners. They include the Commonwealth's own Chief Medical Officer and the Surgeon General of Australian Border Force. So we've got two appointees of the government on this panel. Is the government seriously saying they don't have confidence in their own Chief Medical Officer or the Surgeon General of Australian Border Force? In addition, there's a representative of the AMA, there's a paediatric health expert and there's a representative of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. This is a highly capable and highly qualified independent group of people, who have the ability to apply medical judgement to a particular case when the minister refuses someone's transfer.

The idea that this is some tin-pot group of people who will subvert this legislation and allow transfers to occur when they're not warranted—just have a look at the people that we're talking about here and ask yourself whether they are really going to do so, especially when two members of the panel are appointees of this very government.

Let's go to what the effect of the medevac legislation has actually been. Of course, if you believe the minister, the senators from the government or all the breathless reports that we see in some of the newspapers and leaked by members of this government, then you'd think that the sky was falling in and that it's going to fall in even further if this bill is repealed. As of 17 October 2019, 132 people have been transferred to Australia under the medevac legislation and all transfers have been explicitly approved by the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Dutton; the minister for immigration, Mr Coleman; or by ministerially appointed doctors. That's how unnecessary these transfers were; they were approved in every single case by a government minister or by doctors appointed by those ministers.

As at 26 August 2019, the independent panel had considered 28 applications. These were people who had been recommended for transfer by doctors but who the minister had rejected. Twenty-eight of those went to the review panel, 10 were recommended for transfer and the minister's decision to refuse someone's transfer was upheld in 18 cases. So the minister's decision that individuals didn't warrant transfer was found to be correct in 18 cases, and the panel didn't let that happen. So, again, the legislation is working. It's not seeing hordes of people come to Australia, as we were warned would happen. It's not seeing doctors overturning ministers' decisions—that's not happening. In fact, as of 26 August, the panel upheld the minister's decision in 18 cases. And only one person has been rejected on security or character grounds.

So for all of these claims that Minister Dutton and the Prime Minister were making, that we'd have all these evil terrorists and criminals being brought in under the cover of darkness as a result of this medevac legislation, there has only been one person who has been rejected on security or character grounds and again, importantly, what that shows is that the legislation is working. Where there is a valid case and where someone shouldn't be brought here because of security or character concerns, they're not transferred here. The bill is working.

And that's not to mention the fact that there have been about 1,200 people transferred to Australia by the minister outside the medevac regime. So we have about 132 who were transferred here under medevac as of 17 October 2019, but there are nearly 10 times that number of people who have been transferred to Australia by the minister outside the medevac legislation. So I really don't quite understand why it is that this medevac legislation is the cause of all problems in the country, when we've actually got about 10 times the number of people being transferred here by the minister outside medevac and apparently that's not a problem. The fact is that the medevac bill is working. It is delivering the objectives that Labor always set, which were that people who need medical care get medical care and making sure that people who are a security threat to Australia aren't allowed to be transferred here.

Of course, this is not what Minister Dutton, the Prime Minister and other ministers are saying. But I ask: how can any Australian believe a minister—Minister Dutton—who routinely manipulates, misrepresents and mischaracterises the truth for political gain? He is a minister who constantly cries wolf when it comes to border protection and the risks that are placed on Australia if this bill is repealed. Medevac is a perfect example of that.

Let's just go through a few of the quotes from Minister Dutton. In February, Minister Dutton claimed that medical transfers were going to displace Australia from hospitals. That scandalous claim was made to scare Australians who need to get hospital care, which is harder to get because of this government's own cuts to hospital funding—but that's a whole other issue. Suddenly, the minister wanted to displace blame for that, away from the government's own funding cuts, and to say that it was those nasty refugees, those nasty asylum seekers, who would be brought here if this medevac legislation were passed. Minister Dutton said:

People who need medical services are going to be displaced from those services, because if you bring hundreds and hundreds of people from Nauru and Manus down to our country, they are going to go into the health network, let's be frank about it.

I don't want to see Australians who are in waiting lines at public hospitals kicked off those waiting lines because people from Nauru and Manus are now going to access those health services.

More dog whistling from the dog whistler in chief, Mr Dutton. More scare campaigns to distract attention from the government's own funding cuts to hospitals and trying to put the blame at the feet of asylum seekers and refugees. And what do you know? Those hundreds and hundreds of people from Nauru and Manus who we were warned were going to come haven't come. There were about 132 as of a couple of weeks ago. Funnily enough, we haven't heard anything more from the government about Australians on waiting lists losing their health services because of the medevac legislation. And do you know why? Because it didn't happen and it was never going to happen.

The minister also argued that two doctors from Nimbin could force the government to bring people from Manus or Nauru to Australia. These claims are simply not true. Again, the members of the panel set up to review the minister's decisions include some of the most eminent doctors in this country and two government appointed doctors. Are they doctors from Nimbin? It's not true, it never was true and it's another untruth from Minister Dutton. He also claimed that a thousand people would flood Australia through medevac. That hasn't happened at all. And probably the biggest false claim made by the minister is that, if we had this medevac legislation, the boats would restart and our borders wouldn't be safe. That hasn't happened, it was never going to happen; it was made up as a political argument and it has been exposed as being untrue. The government can't have it both ways. They can't say on the one hand that their policies are stopping the boats and then say medevac is at risk for the boats starting. You can't actually have it both ways.

To sum up: Labor is opposing the medevac bill because all it does is guarantee a core Australian principle, which is that people, no matter who they are, no matter how wealthy they, no matter where they come from, should get good health care. That is a core Australian principle and that is what the medevac legislation does. The legislation also gives the minister power to stop any transfers which are a security concern. The bill is working and it should stay in place.

8:07 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Should people who are sick be able to access health treatment? It's a simple question. Yes or no? That is the simple proposition that goes to the heart of what the Senate is debating right now. That is the simple question at the heart of the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. Should an innocent person who is sick and requires medical care get access to that medical care? That's what we are debating in this chamber right now. Of course, the government's focused intent on destroying the lives of people seeking asylum has reached such a bizarre crescendo that we are debating whether people should receive medical care or be forced to endure ongoing pain and suffering while a politician or a bureaucrat decides their fate. That's what we are debating. In effect, what we have now are Australia's own political prisoners. That's what these people have become.

This parliament has, over recent months, not risen to the level that many people expect of it. Yet what we had a short while ago was a positive outcome for people who are seeking asylum—the parliament coming together and achieving a small change, but a positive change nonetheless. We had the Greens, the opposition and members of the crossbench come together, put aside political differences and recognise that it's time this parliament acted with conscience. The call was loud and clear. The outcome was absolutely decisive. The parliament decided that when people are critically ill it is our duty as Australians to provide them with medical care. It is a sign of how low this debate has sunk that we should even have to ask ourselves that question; but that was the question before the parliament, and the answer that we gave the Australian people was a resounding yes.

Before the medevac laws were introduced people were forced to go to court to get the medical care they urgently needed. They had to endure court decisions at all hours of the day and night to try and secure a medical evacuation. They had to have a judgement, not by a doctor but by somebody not qualified to make that judgement, about whether that person should access medical care. It was an unfair system. It was too slow. While justice delayed is justice denied, so too health care delayed is health care denied. People who need urgent medical care need urgent medical care, not medical care that has to be given at the whim of somebody not qualified to make that decision. No-one should have to rely on the court system to get proper medical care. This is not a question for politicians or judges or bureaucrats. Most decent Australians understand that this is a decision that should be left to medically trained and qualified doctors. That's all the medevac laws do—no more and no less. They put the decision about whether someone needs medical care in the hands of health professionals who are trained and qualified to make that assessment. That's all they do. They put doctors, not politicians, at the heart of making those critical decisions.

We know that the medevac laws have worked. Rather than the fear campaign that we've seen from the likes of Minister Dutton, we've seen that people's lives have been saved because people are getting the medical care they need. You only need to look at what's happening to the refugees on Manus and Nauru to know how critical that decision was. The health systems are absolutely dire. You've got groups like the Australian Medical Association—a group of doctors; not prone to hyperbole—who described the pre-medevac process as tortuous. There were long periods of delay. It lacked appropriate oversight. Furthermore, an independent health assessment in June found that a staggering 97 per cent of people in detention and processing have been diagnosed with a health condition. A further 91 per cent were diagnosed with a mental health issue alongside those with physical health conditions—conditions like severe post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and so on. Of course, these figures exclude the people who have already taken their own lives because of the hopeless and desperate situation this government has put them in.

What lies at the heart of the government's response to these laws is that we should punish an innocent person to send a message to someone else. That is barbaric. It is shameful that in a country like Australia we have a policy based on the premise that we harm the innocent to deter others. That's not what a decent country does. So we must as a priority move all those people seeking asylum off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement. We have had that long-held position. We don't believe that indefinite detention is ever an appropriate response, but, in the meantime, we have the opportunity to provide people with health care when they need it, to provide live-saving treatment.

Let's remember who these people are. They are people who have broken no law and committed no crime. They are people who have come to this country fleeing war, persecution and violence, who have come seeking protection. We owe them protection, because to provide protection is a sign of strength, not weakness. We have that responsibility, yet we find ourselves in a situation where there's a very live possibility right now that, rather than treating people as people and recognising their humanity, we may repeal these very modest but effective life-saving laws.

I know the vote on this is going to be close. It's going to come down to possibly one or two votes. I want to take the opportunity to remind people in this place that they are making a very, very grave decision. The fate of innocent people hangs on the result of this vote. The lives of innocent people depend on how people vote on these medevac laws. How can we call ourselves the country of a fair go, a country that treats people like equals, if we not only turn a blind eye to their suffering but, through laws like this, actively encourage their suffering—if we prevent people from getting the care they need?

We saw a Senate report into this legislation. What's missing from that Senate report is any mention of the current intolerable situation that refugees and asylum seekers face, even after they've been transferred to Australia. This is a law that provides people with the health care that they need, but it does not provide people with the certainty they need to know they can go on and live a good and decent life. The day before the report of the Senate on this piece of legislation was released, a 32-year-old Afghan doctor, Sayed Mirwais Rohani, died in Brisbane. He was the victim of an apparent suicide. Rohani had come to Australia for medical treatment two years ago. After spending four years in detention on Manus Island, that was his fate. After his death, a former roommate posted this on Facebook: 'We shared the same pain for a long time, long enough to destroy someone's life.' Rohani's death was at least the 13th among refugees held in offshore detention on Manus or Nauru—13 deaths on our watch, on this government's watch. The lives of thirteen innocent people ended prematurely at the hands of a government too callous to recognise that our duty is to offer people the health care that they need when they need it, and to treat our fellow human beings as people. I just ask that every single senator in this place reflect on that. Reflect on the 13 lives lost; reflect on what this very modest piece of legislation is trying to achieve. Let that sit on every senator's conscience as we vote on this bill.

8:18 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to wholeheartedly support the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. One Saturday evening a few years ago, I called my mother as I always have every weekend for the last 25 years. Little was I to know that this would be the last time I would do it. I mentioned to Mum that my son was looking forward to his third birthday, and Mum was confused as to who I was talking about. She then mentioned that there was a party going on up the road and she didn't know what the fuss was all about. I quickly realised she was talking about the Chinchilla Melon Festival, and that Mum didn't sound right. I got off the phone and asked my sister to call her, just to make sure I wasn't overreacting. She had the same thoughts and called an ambulance, which took her to the Chinchilla Hospital that evening. We left Brisbane the next morning at 3.30 am, arriving at Chinchilla Hospital early in the morning. Mum had been vomiting throughout the night. As I was to later find out, she had been having multiple strokes.

I wish I could say we could have gotten her an ambulance to Brisbane, 280 kilometres away. We couldn't. The best we could do was get her an ambulance to Dalby, 80 kilometres up the road, where she would have to wait for another ambulance to take her to Toowoomba, another 80 kilometres up the road, where she would have to wait again for another ambulance to get her to Brisbane. At all of these places, it was not known how long it could take to get the ambulance. Because of this, we decided to drive Mum ourselves, on the condition that she was up to it, which, of course, she said she was. The doctors gave us some blood thinners and we took off. At Jondaryan, halfway between Dalby and Toowoomba, she had another stroke, vomiting for five to 10 minutes on the side of the road. We managed to get her to emergency at St Vincent's in Toowoomba by about two in the afternoon, where we waited for about seven hours to get an ambulance to Brisbane. She arrived in Brisbane at 10.30 and had to wait another 90 minutes before seeing a doctor. All up, it took about 18 hours to get Mum to Brisbane, a road trip of around 280 kilometres.

A few weeks ago, it was reported that an asylum seeker who injected his pecker with palm oil was flown from PNG to Australia at taxpayers expense under the medevac laws. Can someone tell me why my mother, who herself was a nurse for 40 years, couldn't get an ambulance, let alone a flight to Brisbane, yet a foreigner can get a flight from PNG for self-harm? Shouldn't we be looking after Australians first? Why is it that asylum seekers, many of whom could afford to pay people smugglers thousands of dollars, get better medical treatment than people in Australia? Why is there a higher ratio of medical staff to asylum seekers than there is in many parts of Australia, especially regional Australia? It is the first duty of any responsible government to keep its citizens safe and to defend the nation's sovereignty and borders. The coalition understands this.

This government has a strong and consistent record when it comes to ensuring the integrity of our borders and in fixing Labor's disastrous failure in this area. When it comes to sound judgement, operational resilience and saving lives, it's the coalition and only the coalition that gets the job done. We stopped the boats the first time, during the Howard government, and then the current Prime Minister stopped them again as the responsible minister when we returned to government in 2013—and so on. This government, ever vigilant, continues to stop leaky boats from making the same perilous journeys that tragically claimed 1,200 lives under the weak border protection policies of the last Labor government. Any attempt to weaken our current suite of stronger border protection policies, policies that have successfully stopped the boats, should rightly be called out as careless, reckless, and potentially disastrous for the poor hapless victims of the inevitable policy fails that will come from a clueless Labor on this issue.

Our policies, including offshore processing, temporary protection visas and boat turnbacks are all critical parts of ensuring that our borders are respected and the boats stay stopped. Only the coalition truly believes that we should control our borders with a resolute, uncompromising strength of purpose. To put it plainly, and despite what they may say from time to time, Labor simply does not believe in strong borders. It's self-evident that the Leader of the Opposition doesn't believe in strong borders and it's doubtful if the Greens even believe in borders at all. You will recall that under Labor's weak border policies, policies that they branded as heartfelt and compassionate at the time, we saw 50,000 people arrive on over 800 boats, 1,200 deaths at sea, 8,000 children in detention and 17 new detention centres rushed into operation. Labor's management of our borders was in no way humane, compassionate, or anything other than an irresponsible moral crusade that quickly became a bloody disaster. Labor's border protection policies did not work. They cost over 1,000 lives, created a long-term legacy of people in offshore detention, and blew a $16 billion hole in the federal budget. No wonder the Australian people said 'Thanks, but no thanks,' to Labor at the last election. This one horrendous failure alone should be sufficient to effectively ban Labor from government for the rest of the century. What is the coalition's record since we returned to government and established Operation Sovereign Borders, under then Minister Morrison and, since, under Minister Dutton? We have seen successful boat arrivals drop to zero and the closure of 19 immigration detention centres.

Weakness on our borders is certainly no virtue; it is a self-indulgent vice which puts lives at risk. For the 1,200 who drowned and for those who have remained in detention, true compassion would have been to do all we could to prevent them from getting on board those leaky boats in the first place. Every plank of our policy structure is necessary to provide a comprehensive deterrent to people smugglers. Make no mistake: these criminals are ruthless and they're watching. Criminal people smugglers are ready to exploit every loophole in our laws or any lapse in our resolve to get back into business. I remind fellow senators that it was our resolve in stopping the boats, taking back control of our borders and breaking the people smugglers' business model that allowed us to substantially boost our humanitarian refugee intake to be amongst the most generous in the world on a per capita basis.

Given the compelling history and the facts of these matters, and after more than five years of exceptional results, thanks to the policies and operational rigour of the coalition government and its agencies, where we didn't see any new illegal arrivals or deaths at sea, some in this place have felt the need to tinker—to remove some of the moving parts that they felt were inconsequential and served no purpose—and, in doing so, risk weakening what was working. This is precisely the risk we face today as a consequence of the passing last February of the heavily amended home affairs legislation amendment. This cynical attempt by some current and former members of this parliament to curry favour with a small but vocal community, who in the most part enjoy a life of abundance scattered across well-heeled, leafy suburbs, is a return to reckless Labor-Greens border protection policy at its very worst.

The so-called medevac bill now threatens to undermine one of the most significant planks of our border protection regime: offshore processing. Further—and, who knows, perhaps deliberately—there is no explicit return mechanism for those who have been successfully treated for illness or injury under the bill. This failure has been described by the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs as a grievous flaw in the legislation, and rightfully so. By opening a perceived pathway into the Australian community, a sign of potential weakness has now been sent to raise the hopes of people smugglers—to once again entice desperate and misguided people to pay money and attempt to come to Australia by boat. There can be little doubt that the optics, if not the immediate consequences of the medevac bill itself, will risk breathing new life into a wicked, people-smuggling trade.

Handing effective control of our borders to activist doctors is not the abrogation of responsibility and divestiture of control that Australians expect of their government on such a critical issue. Australians voted overwhelmingly for the coalition in 2013 knowing that we would apply strong, uncompromising policies to take back control of our borders, and Australians have returned the coalition at every election since in full knowledge of those policies. Clearly, the Australian people, who we all serve, by the way, do not want to see those hard-won, highly effective policies countermanded by a few activist doctors, not to mention legions of case-hungry lawyers. The passing of the medevac bill has effectively forced the government's hand to reopen, as a cautionary measure, the Christmas Island detention centre at significant cost—a negative in anyone's mind and certainly not something the government wanted to do, after closing the same centre in 2018.

The success of our border policies is something to be proud of. History shows that this Liberal-National government closed detention centres, while Labor opened them. We removed children from detention, while Labor put them there. We saved lives, while Labor, through their policies, continued to place lives at risk. Far from saving lives, the medevac bill, which this bill aims to repair, will actually risk more lives. This is proven. It's a question no longer open to debate. The case is closed. Weaken our borders by dismantling any of the supporting structure around boat turn-backs, temporary protection visas and offshore processing—where settlement in Australia is not an available option for those who arrive illegally by boat—and you give a green light to people smugglers and, in doing so, make more deaths at sea almost certain.

Despite the proponents of the medevac bill arguing that the legislation was about helping those in urgent need of serious medical care, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders last month told Senate estimates that fewer than one in 10 of those who have been transferred have actually been hospitalised—just 13, in fact. This hardly passes the pub test when they say that the bill was only for serious medical and mental health emergencies. The highly compromised nature of the present medevac bill became clear earlier this month when there were widespread reports of an Iranian asylum seeker detained in PNG who was being sent to Australia because he botched a DIY penis enlargement, which involved injecting himself with palm oil. Bound as he is by the provisions of the previous medevac bill, the home affairs minister has been compelled to approve the transfer of this patient to Australia. This is ludicrous, and it's just one example of how this short-sighted legislation is working. It's working just as the activists, the people smugglers and the schools of circling lawyers all hoped it would. This individual, according to reports, had a long history of misconduct, with up to 50 separate incidents recorded during his time in detention. These include him being arrested for throwing boiling water over a guard and charges for punching another guard after he disrupted the detainee viewing pornography. The treatment for this man's self-inflicted ailment could cost taxpayers as much as $10,000. You would be hard-pressed to find a single rational person to argue that this is a worthwhile use of taxpayers' money.

This is precisely the type of dangerous, chaotic mess that Labor and the Greens attempt to pass off as compassion. It's allowing the transfer of people who fail a character test and do not qualify for entry into Australia because, among other things, they came here illegally. Morally right or in the best interests of Australia and Australians? I think not. Over 130 asylum seekers have used these laws to come to Australia. Unsurprisingly, given those who helped draft and pass the medevac bill, none of those who have been brought here under the law have so far been returned. If people want to come to Australia, they should do so legally. We should not give illegal arrivals a pathway to sneak in, because this would invariably only invite more—a lot more—with more lives put at an unacceptable risk and ultimately lost.

A significant point is that under the provisions of the medevac bill there is no mechanism to return people to offshore locations. This is, without doubt, the single biggest shortcoming in the legal framework as it stands. The bill under consideration today corrects this perverse oversight by introducing provisions to ensure that those who come to Australia for treatment are returned as soon as practical. The new provisions provide an express basis for the removal of persons brought to Australia under medical transfer provisions.

It is disappointing that, despite all the evidence, despite decades where the Australian people have consistently expressed their desire for strong borders, the Labor Party will, to a senator, vote to oppose this bill. We are coming up on two decades now where this highly emotional issue has been indulged in as an ideological experiment by progressive forces. It is shameful that Labor continues to place empty virtue-signalling to appease the left of their party and the Greens above what is right and what works. For all their talk about empathy, kindness and humanity, I put one simple proposition to Labor: actions speak louder than words. Our actions have saved thousands of lives; their words have not.

I ask those opposite to consider the 1,200 lives needlessly lost at sea and the immense grief and heartache caused. I implore them to look beyond the politics of progressive populism to fully and fairly acknowledge the greater good and to stand up for what is right. Since coming to government, this Liberal-National government has worked with tremendous resolve and self-discipline to fix Labor's appalling border security mess and ensure that the humanitarian disasters which occurred under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government will never be repeated.

The current medevac legislation is high risk for Australia. The irresponsible legislation that this bill aims to overturn and that Labor fully supports proves once again that after more than six years Labor still can't be trusted on border security. As sure as night follows day, Labor will always backslide on this issue. So, once again, it falls to this government, with the support of like-minded senators, to secure our borders and to ensure the dark days never return—so our sailors and border protection officers never again have to pull the lifeless bodies of little children from the sea. By some perverse logic, some may feel ideologically empowered and perhaps even morally superior in voting against this bill but ask yourselves about the consequences. Do Greens preferences really mean more to you than stopping people smuggling? I would like to believe that those opposite now realise they do not.

These issues should have been resolved years ago. I'm dismayed that government senators must stand here in a back-to-the-future moment debating the critical importance of our proven border protection policies yet again. When it comes to border protection, only with clear, unambiguous, resolute strength is there compassion. This is one of those cases where a policy that works must be defended. This bill must pass. We cannot ever go back to the tragedy of the past. I commend the bill to the Senate.

8:36 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. It's always such a delight to follow on from Senator Rennick! His rhetoric is the same rhetoric we've heard in this place year in, year out. This bill acts to amend the Migration Act to extend existing powers in relation to persons transferred to Australia under the medical transfer provisions, allowing for their removal from Australia or return to a regional processing country once they no longer need to be in Australia for the temporary purposes for which they were brought. Those who follow this debate will be well informed and understand that refugee advocates and lawyers have argued that the current powers of return do not need classification and extend to persons transferred to Australia under the medevac legislation.

Labor has always been steadfast in our commitment to national security. That's the bottom line. You shouldn't be listening to anything that Senator Renwick has contributed to this debate because it's the same old rhetoric. I can assure you: Labor has always been steadfast in our commitment to national security. But we must not use national security as a weapon to conceal the truth or to be secretive. Labor has a commitment to two objectives with respect to the medical transfer of people from PNG and Nauru—first, to ensure sick people get the medical care that they need; and, second, to ensure the minister has final discretion over medical transfers on national security, public safety or character grounds. They are the facts, not those which Senate Rennick has put on to the public record. We should at least be honest in this debate.

In the face of repeated false claims by Minister Dutton about medevac, Labor has not yielded. Labor has insisted that medevac is necessary and is working. Consequently, Labor's objectives have not changed. Labor has argued, if the government has legitimate proposals to improve the operation of medevac, then Minister Dutton should put forward amendments, rather than simply seek to repeal the legislation in full. Minister Dutton has not sought to amend medevac. Instead, he has reverted back to a flawed medical transfer system, which was failing to provide adequate and timely medical care to refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing countries. It has, in fact, been failing the basic requirements that sick people get the medical care that they need. If Mr Dutton focused on his portfolio responsibilities instead of harassing Senator Hanson over the bill and her vote last week, then our immigration system would work much better.

Minister Dutton is one of those people who would stop at nothing to intimidate and coerce another individual. Labor are not confused about the actions Mr Dutton has undertaken to put pressure on senators in this place, but we are very confused as to Mr Dutton's thinking and actions on this bill. I don't think we are the only ones. I'm sure many Australians are confused by Mr Dutton. In fact, he's one of those names that regularly come to the fore when I'm in my community back in my home state of Tasmania. His name comes up regularly in conversations and, I would have to say, not in a positive manner. I can assure those opposite that Labor's objectives have not changed. In the face of repeated false claims by Minister Dutton about medevac, Labor has not yielded. We have been consistent and strong in our position, and Labor have been proven right. From the outset, Labor has insisted that medevac is necessary and is working. Doctors and other medical professionals have insisted that medevac is working. Even Mr Dutton has confirmed it's working, with his refusal to transfer a person of bad character. Minister Dutton changes his mind on a daily basis and I imagine he will do so on this bill again in the future.

I also note that the Senate inquiry report into the legislation shows that medevac is working, yet we have a government that is trying to dismantle it. Go figure! Who knows what to believe is happening with this bill! Senator Lambie has said that she has been asking for something. We know that she would like to negotiate around her support for this bill. But, while the government have been quite adamant that they will not be doing any deals and there will be no concessions, I know whose word I would accept, and that is Senator Lambie's—every time—over that of this government, which is devoid of integrity.

This place and the other place are still waiting on Mr Taylor to do the honourable thing and stand aside while the New South Wales Police investigate his alleged conduct in this matter. Labor is waiting on the Prime Minister to take action—that is, if he has time between his numerous phone calls to the New South Wales police commissioner—if Mr Taylor will not. We know the Prime Minister was pretty persistent on the phone, because he rang the police commissioner no less than three times. He obviously has him on speed dial! Mr Dutton has not sought to amend medevac. Instead, he wants to revert to the flawed medical transfer system that was failing to provide adequate and timely medical care to refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing countries. The minister is failing the basic test—that sick people get the medical care that they need and deserve.

We know the record of the Abbott and Turnbull governments—and now the Morrison government—when it comes to health care in this country for Australians. Remember when Mr Abbott went to the election and said that there would be no cuts to health, no cuts to hospitals and no cuts to the ABC? We know how that turned out, don't we? We have also seen that, when the Prime Minister was the Treasurer of this country, he was so good at making cuts to hospitals. We know he cut $1.2 billion out of the aged-care sector, and then what did he have to do? He had to call a royal commission into his own government's failings. So this government's record and that of the Abbott-Turnbull and now Morrison government, is very clear for everyone to see. They can't be trusted. They should never be trusted when it comes to Australians' health and they certainly cannot be trusted when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers; otherwise they would not try to go back to a flawed medical transfer scheme.

This issue, once again, comes down to Minister Dutton and the mismanagement and misrepresentations he makes. The mismanagement of his super department is unbelievable. How can the Australian people have faith in Minister Dutton to get the job done? Why would a government change policy when it's working and accomplishing what it was intended to do? How can the Australian people have faith in a minister to execute his duties when he routinely manipulates, misrepresents and mischaracterises the truth?

Let's talk about medevac, because on that question there is no doubt about what Minister Dutton's views are. When it comes to medevac, the Minister for Home Affairs has made several desperate and outrageous comments. In March, the Home Affairs Minister claimed medical transfers were going to displace Australians from hospitals—a claim disputed by doctors and hospitals across Australia. Minister Dutton is the minister for fear and smear. Mr Dutton said:

People who need medical services are going to be displaced from those services, because if you bring hundreds and hundreds of people from Nauru and Manus down to our country, they are going to go into the health network—

The minister argued that 'two doctors from Nimbin' could force the government to bring people from Manus and Nauru to Australia. These claims are simply not true—the minister has final discretion. He claimed that 1,000 people would flood Australia through medevac—that hasn't happened at all. Neither have his claims that people could be transferred without their consent occurred either. On Sky News in June, Minister Dutton said:

… people of bad character can come, are able to come and, in fact, are required to come under Labor’s laws that they passed. That’s the reality.

  …   …   …

I'm saying there are some—there are some 'people of bad character' who have come to our country.

But the Australian people saw Minister Dutton stop someone of bad character coming to Australia under the laws, so that is clearly false. It's clear that the Minister for Home Affairs is loose with the truth, just like Prime Minister Morrison. The Prime Minister is willing to say and do anything to demonise people. In February, when speaking about medevac, the Prime Minister said:

Someone who's a paedophile, who's a rapist, who has committed murder—any of these other crimes—can just be moved on the say-so of a couple of doctors on Skype.

If this is the type of prime minister he wants to be, then that is his prerogative, quite clearly. If he wants to remain on that low road of politics, then that's the type of prime minister Scott Morrison will be remembered for. The Prime Minister will be remembered as a power-seeking politician, walking the low road of fear.

I wish to put a few other facts on the table, because there's so much misinformation out there, mostly promulgated by the Morrison Liberal government. As of 17 October 2019, 132 people have been transferred to Australia under medevac. Now, 132 people is not the hundreds and hundreds of people that the minister was trying to convince the Australian people was going to be the result of this law. It is quite clear that the laws have been working and that the minister has the final discretion. That has been put into practice. These are the facts around this law. The reality is, when we have refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus, they deserve to have the health care that we are responsible for providing. Every single one of those transfers has been explicitly approved by the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Peter Dutton; the minister for immigration, Mr Peter Coleman; or by ministerial appointed doctors. They are the facts. So it doesn't matter if those on the other side of the chamber, on the government benches, want to chip in with some comments; those are the facts. Those opposite can't continue to try and spin, give mistruths and mislead the Australian people.

As of 26 August 2019, IHAP have considered 28 applications. Of those, 10 were recommended for transfer, and the minister's decision to refuse transfers was upheld in 18 cases—more evidence that the independent medical panel is working as it should. The IHAP includes some of Australia's most highly qualified and experienced medical practitioners, including the Commonwealth's Chief Medical Officer, the Surgeon General of the Australian Border Force, an AMA representative, the AMA ACT president, a paediatric health expert, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. These are well-qualified health professionals. These are not people who are going to flaunt the law. They will make recommendations based on their medical expertise. So it is disrespectful for those opposite and for a minister to mislead and tell untruths when these experts are the ones giving their professional opinion. At every step of the way, the government or government appointed doctors control who comes to Australia through medevac. That is a fact. The notion that the minister does not control who comes to this country and the manner in which they do is, frankly, inconsistent with reality.

The other convenient truth left out of this debate is that this minister, and the previous ministers, have transferred well over 1,000 people to Australia for medical treatment. Labor is confident that the Australian people will see through the mistruths that Minister Dutton is so capable of and is consistently spreading. Labor strongly supports medevac and we are not the only ones. Other stakeholders have said medevac should not be repealed. This includes the Royal College of General Practitioners, Amnesty International, the Uniting Church, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Law Council of Australia, St Vincent's Health Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and the Australian Medical Students Association.

Under this third-term Liberal-National government, offshore processing has become indefinite detention. The architecture of border protection includes boat turnbacks where safe to do so, offshore processing and regional resettlement, all of which Labor strongly—I repeat, strongly—supports. Since the member for Dickson became the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in 2014, he has failed, like so many other areas of policy, to do his job.

He has failed to deliver on the third country resettlement options, such as the New Zealand offer, which has been on the table since 2013. Ever since he became the minister responsible, he has left refugees to languish in indefinite detention. They are now in their seventh year in PNG and Nauru. It is why medevac was needed and required—to ensure that people who are sick receive the medical attention they require and so that they actually get the medical attention they deserve. These laws should not be repealed by the government. People who are sick should receive the medical attention that they need. It's that simple. It is very simple to make sure that these people are afforded the medical care that they need.

I leave you with one final thought. In the words of George Orwell, 'The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.'

8:55 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

If this government had even a small amount of humanity, this bill would never see the light of day. This Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019, if enacted, will ensure further lives are damaged. There is no doubt about it. It would likely reverse the trend of no deaths in detention since the medevac bill was passed—no deaths in detention since the medevac bill was passed. Why would any government want people to suffer, and especially people who are under their care?

Centre Alliance supported the passage of the original medevac bill because medical transfers under the pre-existing regime were slow and often bogged down by legal challenges. We saw the wisdom in giving greater powers to doctors to decide whether to transfer a sick refugee or asylum seeker for appropriate medical treatment. The laws are doing their job. They complement the pre-existing transfer provisions for medical transfers, which continue to operate. No-one is being hurt. People are being helped. Only good things are coming out of the original medevac bill.

Minister Dutton has, in various ways, called the medevac laws disastrous. How are they disastrous? Where is the evidence? Medevac laws haven't restarted the boats for the simple reason that the new provisions only apply to people currently on Manus and Nauru. The laws don't apply to anyone who comes after. And, seriously, why would anyone volunteer to spend six or more years on Nauru or PNG, as many of these medevac transferees have already done? Who would want to do that? No-one in this place would.

This desperate government has had to resort to gutter tactics to make its very thin case for the repeal of these laws. It keeps leaking details to the media of people with dubious character traits who have applied for medical transfer, hoping that this somehow will sway opinion their way. We've heard much of that during the debate today. I simply don't understand why the government thinks only morally upstanding people deserve medical attention. Doctors can't, and never should, refuse treatment based on whether they like someone or not, or whether their patient has led an upstanding life or not. They treat people because they are ill or injured and need medical assistance—that's it. There's nothing else. Why is this government trying to make it a beauty contest? Why does it assume Australians are not humane and think in the same pathetic way? If we were going to decide who got to have medical treatment and who got to suffer based on their character alone, we'd just end up tossing many thousands of people into jail and not bothering with psychiatrists, psychologists or the medical treatment that they need. That's not how a humane society behaves.

A constant theme for this government is to treat refugees and asylum seekers as criminals, as people who can be locked up indefinitely, despite committing no crime, and as people who can be denied the basic rights that Australians take for granted, such as access to proper health care when they need it. I hate to have to remind the government of this, but the vast majority of the people on Manus and Nauru have been found to be genuine refugees with genuine reasons to flee their homeland. They are deserving of our help, not our vilification.

Almost all of the submissions to the inquiry into this bill support the existing medevac laws. I knew the reforms were needed, but, I admit, I was still a little shocked and saddened to hear how disturbed doctors have been when they were reviewing patient clinical notes in order to determine an application for transfer. We heard from Medical Evacuation Response Group doctors that 97 per cent of the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and in PNG have significant physical health issues, and 91 per cent have significant mental health issues. Much of this is due to injuries which were never treated properly in the first case and have since worsened—things like poorly treated or untreated fractures, leading to limb deformity. Dr Sara Townend told the inquiry:

As a clinician, often those clinical files are heartbreaking to read because you see the recommendations of the doctors over and over again—that this patient requires transfer to an appropriate facility for a specialist procedure or test—from 2015.

While the government has insisted that the health services on Nauru and PNG are adequate for the needs of refugees, the Independent Health Advice Panel set up through the medevac laws doesn't back this up. It too noted that the mental health facilities in Nauru are not up to the job for the high number of psychological presentations and mental health admissions, and that those on PNG cannot deal with acute psychiatric cases.

The minister would have us believe that the medevac laws would open the floodgates to scores of asylum seekers and people smugglers. No-one, absolutely no-one, wants to see any more refugee lives lost at sea. But there are no refugee boats on the horizon. Why would there be, when everyone knows that the better way to arrive here is by plane on a tourist visa and then apply for asylum? And then you can spend years offshore while the department slowly determines your case. Why would anyone risk the boat journey in those circumstances? On top of this, there are roughly 65,000 people who overstayed their visa and who are largely left alone because it is too much trouble to look for them—and certainly to boot them home. Some have overstayed by way more than 15 years, but the government doesn't put anywhere near as much effort into persecuting these people as it does for boat arrivals. The medevac laws are working as intended, without drama and without chaos, and the government needs to accept this. It needs to stop trying to further dehumanise these already traumatised people as murderers and rapists, or to dismiss them as economic refugees fleeing for a big house in the burbs rather than fleeing for their lives.

The laws are a humane and humanitarian response that ensures that the people in offshore detention can quite simply get the medical treatment they need, when they need it. It's no more and no less. If we simply accept the obvious truth that the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG are fellow humans, deserving of compassion and humane treatment, then repealing the existing medevac laws is totally unacceptable.

9:04 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019, also known as the medevac repeal legislation, and to express my emphatic support for the passing of this necessary bill.

As we know, in February of this year the provisions moved by the former member for Wentworth, in collusion with Labor and the Greens, established an entirely new framework for the transfer of transitory persons who are detainees from regional-processing countries to Australia solely for the purpose of providing urgent medical treatment. This law was rushed through parliament, and passed with the support of Labor and the Greens at a politically opportune time. It's worth noting that when they had this opportunity, they didn't pass laws for Australians. They didn't create new jobs or put up more funding for hospitals, education or the ABC—their favourite little pet project. The consequences of the medevac law—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order. Can I just remind senators that it's disorderly to interject. Senator Van, you have the call.

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The consequence of the medevac law has been nothing more than to dismantle the powers of the federal government to determine who comes to Australia—yes, to allow Labor to loosen Australia's border protection policies. I repeat once again: to allow Labor to loosen Australia's border protection policies.

As Minister Dutton explained in his second reading speech, there was never any need for the medevac bill. Prior to the February amendments, the government's existing powers were sufficiently abundant and responsible in meeting the genuine medical needs of offshore detainees—that is, should they require to be sent to Australia for specialist treatment or care, they got it. We on this side agree that those requiring medical treatment should be transferred to ensure they receive the medical care that they need, and this is the system that was in place before medevac existed. The existing transfer provisions worked effectively. They worked well. That is because they remained under the control of the government, providing for responsible border control and the orderly entry to and exit from this country.

The difference between the existing provisions and medevac is that now the government has significantly less powers to prevent the transfer of people with bad character. The medevac law took that control, and responsibility, out of an elected and accountable government's control and discretion, and placed it blindly into the hands of unelected and unaccountable doctors. The oddest aspect of the bill that Labor and the Greens passed is that those doctors don't even need to see the patient. They don't even need to be in the same state! Now wait: what if two doctors decide to approve the transfer simply to make a political point? Who holds them to account? Not the voters of Australia. What if a transferee commits a horrendous crime while here? Who will hold the doctors to account then? Why wasn't there judicial oversight built into their bill?

What is also important to note is that, as of mid-October, of the 135 people transferred to Australia, five refused medical treatment of some kind, including the treatment for which they were transferred in the first place; 40 have refused induction chest X-rays or blood tests on arrival; and only 10 per cent were hospitalised. As Senator Keneally herself has pointed out during her contribution to this bill, the government already continues to transfer people who require medical attention. Transferees requiring medical attention that is not available in a regional-processing country will be able to be transferred to a third country, or indeed Australia, for assessment or treatment.

What the senator does not acknowledge is that, worryingly, due to the limited nature of the character and security refusal grounds under Labor's medevac law, six people who have been brought to Australia have character and security concerns. There are currently people in PNG and Nauru who are charged with crimes against children, who are being investigated for the supply of illicit drugs or who have posted terror related information online. Under the medevac law, the government has no discretion to prevent the transfer to Australia of those individuals.

When those opposite say the medevac bill is compassionate, they would be correct in saying that this is a compassionate bill that favours people of questionable character. It is evident that medevac was never more than a pathway for Labor and the Greens to circumvent the strong but fair border control laws of the coalition government. Further, it goes to prove the point that this law was, from its inception, a political sham. Medevac was nothing more than sheer political mob rule and opportunism by Labor and the Greens. Those opposite have even acknowledged that transferees requiring medical treatment will be transferred.

The second part to this bill is vital in order to overturn the chaos and confusion created as a result of the amendment to the Migration Act 1958. The bill will rectify the act to ensure that the transferees that came out to Australia under Labor's medevac law can and will be sent back to a regional processing country once their medical treatment in Australia has been completed.

Labor's medevac law failed to provide a mechanism to return or remove transitory persons brought to Australia under section 198C of the Migration Act to a regional processing country. This is a deliberate act to undermine our secure borders. Yet under section 198B transitory persons are expected to return to a regional processing country once they no longer need to be in Australia for the purpose for which they claim. This government's bill will rectify the inconsistency to close any legal loophole allowing transferees the right to stay in Australia indefinitely. But one can only wonder if this was actually an oversight, or yet another way for Labor and the Greens to intentionally weaken Australia's border protection policies, effectively removing the ability of the government to decide who comes to, or stays in, Australia.

The purpose behind the government's repeal bill is simple. It is based on principles of good governance and ensuring the preservation of national sovereignty. It is imperative for the safety and security of all Australians that we as a government are able to determine who enters this country and whether or not individuals should remain within our borders permanently. Any law that removes the government's ultimate discretion to decide who enters and remains in Australia fundamentally undermines our strong, effective border protection policies. Strong border protection has always been a hallmark of coalition governments. Any moves to repudiate our commitment to border protection must be rectified. The Australian people have emphatically voted for the coalition's policy of strong and sovereign border control, and that is what this government will deliver.

When it comes to matters of border security, Labor cannot be trusted. Prior to the last election, it was clear to the Australian people that Labor's misguided policy on border protection and asylum seekers would be the hallmark of a Shorten-led government. It was a pre-election glimpse of what was to come. And it was overwhelmingly rejected. Unless Labor votes with this side of the chamber, it is safe to assume that any government led by the member for Grayndler would do the same. Thankfully, the voters of Australia rejected this in May.

Labor has consistently demonstrated that it cannot manage the protection of our borders. We only have to look back to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years to see what a catastrophic failure the government created on 'stopping the boats'. Labor's policies instead resulted in an unprecedented influx of illegal boat arrivals to our shores and over 1,200 deaths at sea. In case you need it, here is a reminder of what happened under Labor: 50,000 people arrived on over 800 boats, over 8,000 children were put into detention, 17 onshore detention centres and two regional processing centres were opened, and our border protection budget blew out by $16 billion.

I ask the question: where is the compassion and morality in giving false hope to asylum seekers by encouraging them to embark on a dangerous or, even worse, deadly journey across treacherous seas in ramshackle, unseaworthy boats? The people-smuggling trade, which flourished under the policies of the last Labor government, resulted in numerous devastating drowning deaths at sea on journeys to Australia. This is not compassion. This is not good government. This isn't even common sense. Good government means making the tough decisions that are the right decisions.

It is in Australia's national interest that this bill be passed. We must never return to Labor's policies, which resulted in chaos at our border, deaths at sea and children in detention. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, we have taken back control of our borders from the people smugglers. We are proud of our record, which speaks in stark contrast to Labor's, because we can say that there have been zero deaths at sea, we have closed 17 detention centres and we have removed all children from detention and taken them off Manus and Nauru. We have also increased the intake under our humanitarian program.

If Labor were serious about protecting our borders and restoring the right of the government to control who comes to Australia, medevac never would have existed in the first place. How many elections must they lose on this issue before they accept what Australians want in regard to border security? I note that we now hear Labor representatives claim that each of their policies is up for debate and revision since their May election loss. Well, here is a key opportunity for Labor to revise a crucial policy failure—namely, medevac.

Let's examine what some of those opposite, and their colleagues in the other place, have said since the election—since their change of heart in their policies, since everything is on the table. In June this year, Senator Keneally, on the ABC's AM program, said: 'Let's be fundamentally clear that Labor stands with the government when it comes to keeping our borders secure.' Wow! I think that bears repeating: 'Let's be fundamentally clear that Labor stands with the government when it comes to keeping our borders secure.' Given that those opposite have been advertising their change of heart, shouldn't they consider changing their position on medevac? Remember, this is a bill that was passed with Labor's support. The former member for Wentworth couldn't have done it without those opposite. It was their votes, not hers, that were critical to the passage of medevac through these chambers.

Similarly, Senator Keneally said in July, in The Australian, that Labor fully supports boat turnbacks. Does this mark a change of heart for her, because, in 2015, she said that she 'dislikes the option of boat turnbacks'? If Senator Keneally dislikes turnbacks, and she's had a change of heart since the election, why isn't she supporting the government's legislation here and now? The answer is simple. You can't trust Labor on borders, and you have never been able to. They openly flip-flop.

During his parliamentary career, the Leader of the Opposition has openly protested against the government's border policies, but thinks that he can show up to chat with Alan Jones and say he supports the current policies. Where is he on this? Is his heart really in it? Labor has said that all policies are up for review, but we need to examine the Leader of the Opposition's real feelings on this to understand whether Labor says what it means. At the 2015 ALP conference, the member for Grayndler, at the time the opposition leader-in-waiting, voted against boat turnbacks. Do you know why, Madam Acting Deputy President Polley? It speaks to the heart of Labor's gutlessness when it comes to standing up for our borders. Mr Albanese voted against boat turnbacks because, as he said, 'I couldn't ask someone to do something that I couldn't see myself doing.' The Leader of the Opposition, someone who himself has aspirations to one day lead our country, cannot see himself undertaking boat turnbacks. So which is it? Does he support strong borders or not?

The truth is that medevac was never about genuine concern for the medical needs of the transferees. These needs were more than adequately met under the existing system. It was about trawling for Green voters prior to an election they were desperately, hungrily, wanting to win. Medevac is about circumventing Australian law and security measures to try and get around the government's functioning and successful border control and asylum-seeker policies.

The coalition has a clear, fair and assured policy on border protection. Yes, you can call it strong, but it has a greater compassion and respect for human rights than the trumped-up, gesture politics played by our opponents. Nothing epitomises this more than the lies told by the supporters of Labor's medevac legislation. It's been demonstrated to be a scam and the mess it was always destined to be. Yet again, it's all in the name of self-aggrandising, compassion-and-human-rights-centred rhetoric, righteously proffered by Labor and the Greens. This bill is about ensuring that those who genuinely require medical treatment will be able to access it, whilst also ensuring that those of bad character are not transferred to Australia or allowed to stay here. I therefore urge the Senate to support this crucial repeal bill.

9:22 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to oppose the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019. In doing so, Labor stands with numbers of doctors, lawyers, refugee advocates, human rights groups and the United Nations in opposing the repeal of medical transfer provisions. That's the list of people this government doesn't want to listen to and doesn't want to believe: doctors, lawyers and human rights groups. The government don't really talk about the people involved in this legislation; they want to talk about it in abstract terms and use terms like 'bad character', but the truth is we are talking about people here who are in need of medical treatment. Medevac laws have the support from this broad range of people, community groups and experts because the laws are working well. The medevac laws are ensuring that sick people get the medical care that they need, and the minister has final discretion to refuse transfers on national security, public safety or character grounds.

Government senators seem to believe that they can just say something in here and it just comes true—that they can say something about a bill and its effect and it's just true. They say a lot of things in this debate that are misleading. They've sprouted many myths about this law, its effect, its legal obligations, what the effect on the minister is, how it affects people with bad character and what the government's record is on these matters. Labor believes that Australians do want strong borders. We also believe that when someone is sick and someone needs our help we will give it to them. Australians do understand the difference. It is an insult to the Australian people that this government thinks that they can't see the distinction between those two things—that the Australian people can't tell the difference between having strong borders and helping people who are desperately ill. They think that people in the community can't tell the difference, but this law that the government is trying to repeal is that distinction. The medevac laws are the distinction that Australians are seeking. Australians see the difference, and that is why Labor supported the laws in the first place and why it opposes the government's amendments now.

The other contribution that I wanted to make to the debate tonight is around the discussion about this legislation and about the impact that this government's failure to properly manage offshore detention has had on our relationship with Papua New Guinea. I travelled to Papua New Guinea earlier in the year. My constituency have an extremely close connection with PNG. The connection between Cairns and PNG is incredibly close. Some people refer to Port Moresby as a suburb of Cairns. There is also a very strong connection between the people of the Torres Strait and PNG. PNG is so close to where Queensland finishes that you can ride a dinghy from one side to the other. People joke about being able to shout from one island and be heard on the other. Boigu and Saibai islands are very close to PNG. For thousands of years there have been special customs between the people living in PNG and the people living in the Torres Strait. That is why we have a special customary border zone, which allows the movement of people for the purpose of trade. We have a special border zone between the Torres Strait and PNG where people can come and go, if they have a permit, for trade purposes. Often I am told by people in the Torres Strait that the purposes for trade are loosely defined, and we do get people who come across whose families live on one island and they on the other. There are some concerns and risks involved, particularly around health care, but this is a customary practice that has been going on for thousands of years.

When I was in PNG I visited two hospitals and a health clinic. It was pretty eye opening and heartbreaking to go to a hospital in PNG and sit on the bed next to a small boy who was unable to move from malnutrition and a mother who was sitting by his side willing him to get better. The health conditions and health care available in PNG are heartbreaking, because they do live so close. They live a small dinghy ride away from where Queensland stops, yet the health care that is available to people in PNG, with the many challenges that PNG faces, of eight million people that live in terribly difficult geographic—

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you have any idea what you're talking about?

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Have you been to PNG?

Senator Ruston interjecting

Well, I have too and I visited a hospital.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind senators that it's very disorderly to interject. Senator Green has the call.

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know, because I have visited those hospital facilities in PNG, that, sadly, there is not adequate treatment for life-threatening concerns. I know because Queensland Health treats a number of people in Cairns and the Torres Strait in hospitals for people who have been medevacked from PNG to hospitals in Cairns and the Torres Strait. The government knows that that is the case and that those health facilities are not adequate, because the government provides funding to Queensland Health to provide those health services.

It does seem strange to me that the government would be, on the one hand, telling people that there are health services in PNG for asylum seekers to access but, on the other hand, providing funding because they know that there are many people from the PNG community who come to Far North Queensland to receive health care. I am greatly concerned about the impact that this has had on our relationship with PNG in creating tension with our closest neighbour. Papua New Guinea does not have the resources or expertise to care for asylum seekers with complex health issues. That is why we have been supportive of these medevac laws, because, at the end of the day, no matter where that person is fromwe want to make sure that they get the appropriate health care that they need.

This government is misleading the public about the security risks posed to Australians by the current medevac laws. Right now Minister Dutton has the power to block someone coming to Australia if they pose a security risk. The minister has the power to deny entry to a patient who has a substantial criminal record if they pose a risk to the Australian community. The minister has the power to deny entry to patients if they have an adverse security assessment or if ASIO advises the minister that there would be an unmitigated threat to security. Those security risks are already built into the legislation. And we know the laws are working, because the minister exercised those powers on 11 October this year to deny the transfer of one detainee.

Let's also be clear about the character of the men and women that this legislation applies to. The Minister for Home Affairs wants the public to be afraid of these people. He wants the public to assume that they are all of bad character, not worthy of compassion or adequate health care. But this is not true. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the character of these men and women in his first phone call with the newly elected US President, Donald Trump. A leaked transcript of the call shows that he said:

We know exactly who they are. They have been on Nauru or Manus for over three years and the only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.

I only mention that because it does cut through this government's argument that these laws need to be changed to stop people of bad character coming to our country. This is why we know that Minister Dutton does not have real concerns about the national security risks posed by the medevac legislation.

Instead, this government wants to continue to incite fear in the wider community for its own political gain. When these laws were passed, the government was claiming it would result in a new surge of boat arrivals. That has not happened. There is clear evidence that the combination of turn-backs and offshore processing has stemmed the flow of boats. Minister Dutton has consistently mischaracterised the truth for political gain, and there is no difference. We have not seen the 1,000 people come into Australia for medical care that he claimed we would. As at 17 October, only 132 people had been transferred to Australia under medevac. There has also been no impact on Australians accessing health care, as the minister claimed. It is clearly false to suggest that these laws force the government to bring people of bad character to Australia. Instead, this government wants to revert to a flawed medical transfer system that was failing to provide adequate and timely medical care to refugees and asylum seekers in regional processing countries. The average wait time for sick refugees under the previous system was two years, with some refugees waiting up to five years. That's just not good enough for the people that we have responsibility to assist.

The medevac laws, as they stand, maintain rigorous border surveillance and security whilst fulfilling Australia's obligation to provide full and appropriate medical care for people detained in Australian funded facilities. What is important to remember is, in the nine months since the medevac legislation was passed, 200 people have been approved for medevac transfers. Of those approvals, the minister has approved 172 of those transfers without seeking a review from the government-appointed independent health panel. The government-appointed independent health panel has refused transfers in 45 cases, which is more than it has approved, demonstrating its independence. The Minister for Home Affairs has exercised his refusal powers under the medevac legislation to refuse at least one transfer on security grounds.

I might say, the reopened Christmas Island detention centre, which the Prime Minister said would cost $1.4 billion to reopen, which did cost $185 million of taxpayer money so that the Prime Minister could go there for a photoshoot and then come back, is currently only housing one family—one family from regional Queensland. That family from Biloela in regional Queensland has been the subject of a number of news articles and a lot of attention. They're not subject to this legislation, but I do want to mention them because I often feel that this government mischaracterises the views of Australians, particularly those living in regional Queensland, on strong border protection. Australians do believe in strong border protection, but they also see that there are times when this government needs to exercise humanity. The medevac laws are one. The treatment of the family relocated from Biloela in Queensland to the Christmas Island detention centre is another.

That community in regional Queensland wanted to make sure that that family knew that they were wanted, that they were loved and that they were part of the community. That community in regional Queensland demonstrated everything that is lacking in this government and everything that this government should be doing. They should be considering this issue on its merits, they should be considering the policy and the effects of these laws and they should be looking at the evidence, but they're not doing any of that. They are desperately trying to undo what was a blow to them before the last election. I think it is time that we start listening to people like doctors, lawyers, advocates, human rights lawyers, human rights groups, the United Nations and the people from regional Queensland who want to say to this government that there is a clear difference between making sure that we have strong borders and doing the right thing when it comes to refugees—making sure that people who are sick are cared for and making sure that happens in a timely way.

I would urge the crossbench, who will decide the fate of this legislation, to consider who they are teaming up with: this government, cruel and inhumane, and unable to see beyond their own political fascination with demonising a group of people who've done nothing but ask for our help.

9:37 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, and as someone who listens carefully to the views of the people I serve, I wish to address the clear concerns of Australians who object to noncitizens trying to find a backdoor way into this country. These refugee claimants, who have not yet been found to be genuine refugees, tried to come to Australia by boat, avoiding the normal processes of applying for a visa beforehand. These people are queue-jumpers, trying to beat the system and get an advantage over the people who follow the rules and who will make good citizens. These are people who have not yet been fully vetted for security and criminal history and have been housed offshore with regional processing countries until their claims have been fully dealt with. These people do not respect our country's sovereignty.

The Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act was passed in early 2019 with the support of Labor, the Greens and with some crossbench support—not that of One Nation. The government voted against the measures because the measures made it much easier for claimants to seek medical transfers to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island, with only the say-so of two unspecified doctors. Under these recent provisions, 135 people have already been transferred to Australia for medical treatment up to 21 October 2019, almost doubling in number since 31 July 2019. Security and criminal history checks for these people had not even been finalised, but they're here. There were 562 claimants living across Manus Island and Nauru as at 30 September 2019. Security and criminal history checks have not been completed for these remaining claimants.

One Nation support this bill because we are concerned that Labor and the Greens are absurdly soft on national security issues. There is nothing more important than human life and the protection of our borders. We know, for example, that there are at least 562 dishonest asylum seekers being processed who did not make it as far as Australia and who may well be a significant danger to the Australian people. Many have come from violent backgrounds and see violence as normal behaviour. Some may intend to harm the Australian way of life. Australia is no longer immune to international terror. In the last few days, we have seen that another two innocent young people have been murdered by a committed terrorist after a release from prison in England, having served only eight years of his 16-year sentence and still so full of hate and violence that he was a danger to society.

Under the current Australian law, it is easy for a claimant to simply self-harm and then seek transfer to Australia for medical treatment. Why is this so popular? The answer is easy. Currently, there are no legislative means to return the claimant to a regional processing country after medical treatment has been provided. What a great way to get to Australia. Labor and the Greens do not respect Australian sovereignty. What is the current process to get here? All that is needed is to convince two doctors—irrespective of those doctors' personal views—that it is necessary for the claimant to receive treatment in Australia. The doctors do not even have to see the patient; a decision based on the papers is sufficient. Come on! We did not come down in the last shower. This is the blueprint to get around Australia's border protection. That is it. A recent example of the stupidity of this arrangement is the claimant who injected his penis with palm oil in an alleged attempt to enlarge his penis and get to Australia. The resultant swelling led to a claim to seek Australian medical assistance, and he was promptly sent to Australia for treatment, with no way to return him. Yes, this is obscene in more ways than one.

Australians deserve to be secure and safe from potential terrorist activity. We also expect our government to provide systems that promote fair and safe means to deal with genuine refugees. These were already in place prior to the miscellaneous measures bill earlier this year. Claimants offshore requiring medical treatment could receive it in our country in emergencies. One event that prompted the miscellaneous measures bill involved a man who eventually received treatment for an infection, but it was too late to save his life. This tragedy was not because of faulty legislation but due to bureaucratic delay. The resulting legislation was unnecessary and has created a loophole for claimants to get to Australia instead of having their claims for refugees status processed offshore.

One Nation stands for the rights and interests of Australians. We put the wellbeing of Australians first. No apologies—we put the interests and wellbeing of Australians first. We respect Australian sovereignty, and we respect Australia. One Nation is the only party that really listens to Australians. I've travelled widely around Australia to listen to the thoughts, feelings and concerns of farmers, miners, factory workers, small businesses, and the many Aussies who are doing it tough.

What I am sick and tired of is the bleating of Labor and the Greens telling us how to live our lives and putting us at risk—putting scrub and swampland in front of human needs for water and telling us that we need unreliable, expensive sources of electricity instead of reliable and cheap clean-coal power. The true ecowarriors are our farmers, who know more about water management and the protection of the environment than most of those here in the Canberra bubble. These farmers are the real environmentalists. The crops and pastures and bushland on their properties are a healthy habitat for many native species that are dying otherwise because of a lack of water. Many of those farming heroes are here today. Look around outside. Some are staying here tonight. They all came here to Parliament House to express their concerns for the need for good management of our valuable water resources, and for good management and leadership of our country. They even brought some rain. This is no laughing matter, as water is the lifeblood of all these protesters today. These are protesters with a legitimate message. I've travelled the length of the Murray and across the Murray-Darling Basin to listen to people affected by the mismanagement of our water resources. From the Warrego in the north to the Goulburn in the south, from Albury in the east to Goolwa in the west, we need to fix water policy. So stop talking and take action now. These farmers, I am sure, have something else in common with One Nation: farmers believe it is the Australian way to give someone a fair go, and letting a queue-jumper enjoy a free ride into Australia does not pass the pub test, because it is not fair to allow this to happen.

What has been missing to date is sound leadership of our nation. We still don't see a vision from the government. We need leadership to make the long-term decisions that will secure our country's future. We need leadership that guides decisions to build the infrastructure necessary to manage the foreseeable natural climate variability that farmers for thousands of years have endured. Building dams, pipelines, levies and more are some ways to manage our water supplies. Even the ancient Egyptians, thousands of years ago, had sound water-management policies. We need leadership that recognises the sovereignty of Australia and the ability to be self-sufficient and not reliant on others in the short term. We need to stop selling off Australia to overseas interests, or there will be little left to call Australia. We support this bill and commend the government for presenting it. I support this bill.

9:45 pm

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In world terms, Australia's borders are particularly extensive, and, by the very nature of our nation, our borders are very challenging to surveil and police. We have a huge country—in fact, we occupy a whole continent—and we have a very sparse population with a very extensive land and sea border. Our border protection force and our combined defence forces provide an integrated and vital service in maintaining the security of our borders, and they do perform an excellent service for us.

Successfully patrolling and maintaining security of our borders requires employment of a broad range of technologies, operating from a multitude of platforms, that includes submarines, aircraft, ships, satellites, and land based assets. Commanding these resources are staff within these mobile assets and within bases spread across almost all states and territories—including, extensively, my home of the Northern Territory. The vast yet comprehensive nature of maintaining our border security is a significant challenge, and we do it very well. The complexity of the resources and the management required to achieve this level of security is significant, and I congratulate all those who participate in achieving our high standards of border security.

Achieving this level of security was particularly difficult in the period following the disastrous Labor years, when control of our borders was entirely lost to the people smugglers. When Labor entered government in 2007, there were only four illegal maritime arrivals in detention, and none of them were children. In what can only be described as an inexplicable decision—and without a skerrick of policy forethought and not one ounce of common sense—Labor proceeded to unwind the successful Howard government border-protection policies.

The results were disastrous and began almost immediately. Fifty thousand people arrived on more than 800 boats—800 boats; it's unfathomable. That's not a policy; that was a free-for-all. It was open slather for all and sundry to come to Australia as they pleased and without consideration for our nation's security or the protection of our citizens. As is frequently the case with thought-bubble policy, no consideration was given to the variety of outcomes beyond the initial goal of letting everybody in. We know that that disaster of a Labor policy was directly responsible for the deaths of at least 1,200 people—1,200 people that we know of, and possibly more.

The notion that these deaths can be fobbed off as unintended consequences is truly telling of the lack of foresight Labor has when it comes to policy. When Labor and Dr Kerryn Phelps teamed up to introduce amendments that saw the introduction of the medevac legislation, it came as a surprise to no-one that there was little or no thought resembling a policy behind these changes, and almost immediately the system was abused to enable entry by those who may seek to harm us. During Senate estimates, Senator Chandler asked how many people had been brought into Australia as a direct result of the medevac laws and who were considered to be people for which we held security concerns. In response—

Debate interrupted.