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Navigating the post-Medivac ugliness



This week, the Australian House of Representatives and the Senate passed amendments to the Migration Act 1958 to do what should have never have been needed: evacuate asylum seekers and refugees from Manus Island and Nauru in desperate need of medical care. Broadly speaking, the act facilitating the amendment was born as the Medivac Bill.

Peter Dutton prods a giant, grotesque caricature of an Australian bigot while Scott Morrison quips that 'I told you the beast wast stirring'. Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasThe gratingly contorted provisions in the bill merely provide a lawful basis for the refugees and asylum seekers in question to be transferred to Australia for 'medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment'. Nicholas Proctor and Mary Anne Kenny, of medical health and law backgrounds respectively, see the bill in glowing terms. 'Aside from being a circuit breaker to current arrangements, the bill is a new opportunity to establish agreed governance arrangements and a clinical pathway for recognising and responding to medical need without political interference.'

One aspect of the legislation does something hitherto avoided on the subject of refugee health: privileging, though hardly giving exclusive rein, to medical opinion. The assessment for such treatment is to be conducted by two doctors, either in person or remotely, considering psychiatric and treatment needs, the lack of adequate facilities in Nauru or Manus Island, and the necessity for transfer for appropriate medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment.

The provisions are, however, not plain sailing in their humanitarian import and Proctor and Kenny show undue confidence in Australia's political representatives. While being given a 72-hour window, the Minister for Home Affairs retains power of approval or refusal over the recommendations. He may not, for instance, accept the gravity of medical grounds as requiring a transfer. (An independent health advice panel, in true bureaucratic fashion, would then be asked to reassess the recommendation.) Traditional grounds for refusal are also available to Peter Dutton, be it in the case of a person having a 'substantial criminal record' or facing an adverse security assessment.

The attempts from the Morrison government to frustrate the change to the Migration Act are worth noting in their spectacular ugliness. While Labor and various assisting crossbenchers can hardly chortle in their success, government representatives proved positively ugly in response.

For one, the Coalition was hoping that opposition members would be cowed into submission before legal advice of the Commonwealth Solicitor General suggesting that the proposal was in breach of Section 53 of the Constitution. The breach would occur, argued the advice, as Senate amendments passed last December had increased expenditure from a standing appropriation. This was neutered by a Labor amendment removing any remuneration requirement for those sitting on the scrutinising medical panel.

Having failed in Parliament to prevent tinkering to the border protection regime, the Morrison government returned to the well Australian politicians have drawn upon when faced with electoral crisis: demonise humanitarian approaches to refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat, and accuse opponents of going wobbly. 'Australia cannot trust Bill Shorten', huffed Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 'to make Australia stronger.' All boat arrivals forthwith would be 'on Bill Shorten's head'.


"Border security, vicious refugees and wicked people smugglers — all traditionally nasty themes and the last hopes for a moribund government."


Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann was no less crude in adopting a mode that speaks wonders to the desperation of a government awaiting its electoral deliverance. 'Bill Shorten and the Labor Party have demonstrated tonight they do not have the mettle to protect our borders.' Importantly, the ALP had not 'learned' from those hard lessons of the past regarding border security.

Former prime minister and border protection obsessive Tony Abbott took his cue on the Ben Fordham show to claim that such language was 'not about winning an election so much as ... doing the right thing by our country. Our first duty is to Australia and Australians.' In other words, winning the next election.

Ugliest of all was the twinning, yet again, of humanitarian measures with suggestions of depraved criminality. With rich scurrilousness to rival such previous Coalition hits as the Tampa and 'Children Overboard', government members were warning Australian electors that the country's sacred borders would be breached by a swarm of paedophiles and misfits.

The Attorney-General Christian Porter lamented in the House that Labor and the Greens had 'gagged debate' and reduced ministerial discretion in dealing with potential transferees charged with indecent acts against children. (This has not happened as yet but hypotheticals are realities for Porter.)

To finalise the trifecta of concerns, David Spears of Sky News gave a smidgen on the paranoia lurking in the minds of the border conscious classes. 'I'm told Australia's intelligence agencies believe "the beast is stirring" since the passage of the Medivac bill. They are trying to ensure "the beast doesn't wake up". (The beast is the people smuggling trade fyi.)'

Border security, vicious refugees and wicked people smugglers — all traditionally nasty themes and the last hopes for a moribund government.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Medivac, asylum seekers, Nauru, Manus Island



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Existing comments

"Border security, vicious refugees and wicked people smugglers — all traditionally nasty themes and the last hopes for a moribund government." Very true Binoy! But what happens to the refugees now, after their illnesses have been attended to? They will be sent back to the off-shore hell-holes where they've been for the last 6 years, instead of being allowed to stay in Australia as citizens! The bogus argument that this would cause more drownings at sea is just that - a bogus argument. The boats would be turned back if they ever started again. How many more desperate asylum seekers have to die before our major party politicians stop playing politics with the lives of these desperate people? Twelve have died already! Australia once had a good international reputation, but no longer!

Grant Allen | 15 February 2019  

The passage of the Medevac through both houses of Australia's Federal Parliament was a great victory for humanity. Yes, we can expect the very heavy right wingers in the LNP Coalition (Morrison, Dutton, Abbott etc.) to claim that the sky will now fall in. The struggle by caring Australians to achieve some humanity for the asylum seekers in our direction has been a long one thanks to the smoke cloud of claims by the LNP and their supporters in the media. Generally, these are the same ones who refuse to accept that we are facing real problems with the pollution that is causing climate change and has left many millions around the world very sick. We have a long way to go, however. Most of the asylum seekers who have come to our shores have been refugees who have come from countries that have been badly affected by wars started by the US or repressive regimes installed by the US. Tragically, these policies have been supported by our leaders - both the LNP Coalition and the ALP. Just recently, leaders of Norway and Denmark admitted that they had been wrong to support the US war against Iraq and the NATO war against Libya. Not only had these wars cost many lives and caused great suffering and destruction, they also caused huge waves of refugees that have, in turn, caused great problems for ant European nations. Even Tony Blair, a great supporter of the war in Iraq, admitted that this conflict cause the rise of ISIS which has had disastrous effects for Syria. As we struggle to improve the human rights of refugees, we need to find wats to prevent people from having to be refugees in the first place. To do this, we need a free and non-aligned Australia whose leaders actively work for world peace, social justice, human rights and the effective care of the environment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 February 2019  

And lazy people like Michael Bachelard use one child who didn't drown some years back as an excuse to claim some unnamed people are encouraging non existent people smugglers to do something.

Marilyn | 15 February 2019  

We are currently governed by extremists, exercising the capacity of the nation state to bully innocent, voiceless and powerless people to a twilight existence without hope.

John McKeon | 18 February 2019  

Great Thanks, Binoy, for a powerful and excoriating analytical essay! One has to wonder about Catholic Bishops around the world who read your argument, especially as it emerges from a Jesuit publisher. In the US and Ireland there is a powerful push from the Right (and with which I approve) for banning full-term abortion advocates like Governor Cuomo of NY from receiving Communion. Why cannot our Australian Bishops withdraw the right of prominent Catholic politicians, such as Abbott and Cormann, to receive the Eucharist for demonising refugees in the run-up to our elections?

Michael Furtado | 18 February 2019  

Forgive me if I appear to be playing the man and not the ball but I cannot resist commenting on the irony of the Attorney General's names. Christian and Porter. To be Christian is to be like Christ who set the standard, admittedly a very high one, on how we should treat those in distress. The parable of the Good Samaritan says it all. But the surname Porter is also interesting. In its Christian sense Porter refers to the doorkeeper of a monastery whose traditional guideline was: Venit hospes, venit Christus. When anyone comes seeking hospitality, Christ comes. The Benedictine monks set themselves a very high standard indeed.

Uncle Pat | 18 February 2019  

A cartoon can be worth a thousand words. The Beast Morrison and Co is stirring is the extremist neo conservative, with his/her F off we are full t.shirt.

Penny | 18 February 2019  

Australia could afford to increase its refugee intake by 50% from 1 July 2019, subject to the refugees in question being cleared through robust security and criminal history checks. However at the same time, the Federal Government should immediately reduce the 'business as usual' immigration levels by at least 75%, until the Australian taxpayers can afford to pay for the additional levels of essential economic and social infrastructure & services necessary to just support the existing Australian population. There is absolutely no justification for the Federal Government to keep approving an annual migration intake of 190,000 people because this policy is blatantly lowering the living standards of the existing Australian population which already includes millions of migrants and their descendants. The Federal Government has a moral and financial obligation to its taxpayers to ensure that, only after an acceptable level of economic prosperity & welfare for the existing Australian population, including our indigenous population is fully achieved, will proposals for any future increase in Australia's immigration levels be considered. In closing, it's timely that I was recently reminded of that old, but wise, saying "Act, or be acted upon !! "

Chris Begley | 18 February 2019  

This article and most of the comments, are what has become vintage ES. There just has to be some dissenting voice! That this legislation is actually needed is very open to doubt; there has been a clear way via High Court injunctions to get sick off-shore detainees to Australia quickly if it has been thought necessary. And of course the residual off-shore asylum seekers are in the process of resettlement in the US, and inevitably NZ`s offer will be taken up if needed. This initiative by a new coalition of Greens/cross-benchers and Labour, orchestrated by GetUp! is just playing neo-marxist "politics of chaos" with these unfortunate asylum seekers. Labour should be ashamed with themselves for going along with such naked populism, and may well live to regret it at the ballot box. Kerryn Phelps will also be found out for demeaning herself by taking Green preference support, and hugely expensive GetUP! propaganda, both of which she is now having to repay. The Devil is playing this tune; I just pray that it doesn`t end with hundreds more drowning at sea as the parliamentary consensus on border security policy gets shreaded.

Eugene | 18 February 2019  

Eugene, who else in Australian custody, to whom a duty of care is owed, require a High Court injunction to access medical care appropriate to their condition?

Ginger Meggs | 19 February 2019  

Ginger, a good point, but I was pointing out that there is no-one in offshore detention that is not in reach of help when needed. And the medical resources on the ground seem pretty good and bountiful. What has happened is an attempt to destroy government (and opposition) policy by exploiting these unfortunate people for politics.

Eugene | 20 February 2019  

While Eugene is right in pointing out that the Medivac legislation is opportunistic and in respect of which Labor will have to pay a price, the real issue is that these refugees have done no harm and broken no law, and should not have been incarcerated abroad for a period in excess of five years. It would take great leadership but an attention to principle rather than politics to explain this to the Australian people. That is surely what Shorten & Plibersek should now do, rather than to helplessly watch the polls shift in favour of a mean and small-minded government.

Michael Furtado | 20 February 2019  

Thanks Michael F. I agree with you, but the main party politicians were themselves traumatise by 50,000 odd refugees turning up by boast leaving 1200 others dead drowned at sea. The vast majority of arrivees have long go been placed, and the government has been trying to find places or the rest to go for a good future, including the overly slow evacuation to the US that is now underway. It should lao be remembered that the best policy solution was proposed by Juli Gillard, which would have set up refugee processing BEFORE they for on boats on Indonesia and Malayasia, but this was destroyed primarily by the Greens, again only to stir up political mischief and in the process achieving all this mess. We really should not forget the classic destructive role of the Greens in all this.

Eugene | 21 February 2019  

Eugene, I agree with your point about the Greens' sabotage of Julia Gillards "Malaysian Solution" by siding with the shameful (No - it had no shame), the disgraceful Abbott opposition. They should never be allowed to forget their duplicity.

Uncle Pat | 21 February 2019  

Thanks Binoy, an excellent article. I am a retired specialist physician and I say to Eugene that waiting for a high court injunction (resisted fiercely and invariably by Dutton's department) is completely unacceptable for many acutely ill refugee patients. I found it gut-wrenching to hear of refugees dying from obvious sepsis when the acuity of their illness was ignored. Every hour is precious in this and many other conditions. Even in regional Australia we have far better services than those provided on Nauru or at Manus: at least we have rapid RFDS response and don't have to fight pig-headed bureaucrats to get sick people transferred. The new legislation is actually pretty tame and still does not address the issue that a large group of people, almost all genuine refugees, are being detained indefinitely: there is nowhere to go that does not put them in danger. How would you feel Eugene, in that situation?

Llewellyn Davies | 23 February 2019  

I am sorry to ask this, but are our 'leaders' really members of "Christian" churches? It seems quite contrary to the teachings I received in the old Church of England, many years ago. How is it possible to 'tout' their membership alongside this inhuman treatment of others. I am not happy to say this - but what about the healing of sick, the care of strangers and loving our neighbour? Do their versions of Christian teachings leave these bits out? I am very confused.

Jennifer Raper | 23 February 2019  

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