Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019

2 December 2019

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (20:55): 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.

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