Matter of Public Importance: Medevac legislation

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance, which is framed:

That the flawed and dangerous Medevac legislation—

That were effected by Labor and the crossbench before the election—

undermines Australia’s border security and must be urgently repealed. 

Most people have a longer memory than those on the crossbench and in Labor, but for those who can't remember, let me help them out. In the almost six years in which Labor was in power between 2007 and 2013, 50,000 people arrived in Australia illegally—using our waters and arriving in 800 boats. Eight thousand children were put into onshore detention in Australia, including 2,000 who remained in detention when the coalition came to government. At the worst of the people-smuggling trade and illegal arrivals there were 10,000 people living in 17 detention centres in Australia. If that wasn't bad enough, Australian taxpayers were paying $16 billion—not million, billion—to feed, house and clothe these detainees, in addition to the costs of processing them when they didn't have any documentation.

Now, I know I rattled off a lot of numbers, but let me give you the worst number of all—and it is 1,200. Twelve hundred people died at sea attempting to gain access to Australia's borders. Twelve hundred men, women and, sadly, children—

Senator Duniam: That we know of.

You're absolutely right, Senator Duniam—that we know of—died in this process. But Operation Sovereign Borders has been an enormous success. Stop the boats and you stop the illegal trade in people smuggling and the exploitation of vulnerable people. Stop access to Australian waters and there is nothing for people smugglers to sell.

So, those numbers—the number of boats, 800 down to zero; the number of children in detention, from 8,000 to zero; the number of deaths at sea, reduced from 1,200 to zero—make me ask why Labor thought it was a good idea to open the door to this disgusting trade, to re-create the market where people smugglers could charge huge amounts of money to people to travel in unsafe boats, often deliberately disabling the safety of those boats to force a rescue—twelve hundred.

The medevac transfer bill—these amendments we are talking about—introduced by Dr Phelps last year and fully supported by Labor and the Greens, was flawed and dangerous. But they supported it, knowing the chaos caused between 2007 and 2013, knowing that winding back offshore processing would cause such chaos, knowing that there was such a scramble from the Gillard government to re-establish it. Senator Wong would have been in cabinet meetings about the impact of these unfettered illegal entries that were creating huge accommodation issues. There was overcrowding, and the tensions and safety risks this caused for detainees needed to be dealt with. There was the need to recommission old defence sites because the number of detainees was overwhelming all of the capacity at existing immigration detention centres. The medevac changes were stunningly naive and a massive overreach on the part of the former member for Wentworth.

The bill, or those changes, allowed for two doctors to override a ministerial decision about who could come to this country for medical treatment. But it isn't just about medical treatment. Two doctors can decide to transfer a person from offshore detention to Australia even if they're not diagnosed as ill. They could be transferred simply for assessment. And, with the recent ruling of the Federal Court, a person can be assessed without the doctors even seeing them. They can simply review the file from afar and approve the individual's transfer with just a signature. Once they're onshore, the minister has no way, no power, no right, to send them back to offshore processing—all of which shows what the changes were really about. They were really all about subverting the orderly immigration processes of this nation, all about dismantling offshore processing, all about loosening our borders.

Australian doctors train for at least a decade to provide medical expertise to Australians. As a profession, Australian doctors are highly skilled, and they provide us with world-class health care. At times they also provide advocacy aimed at improving that health care for all of us. Like most Australians, I happily visit doctors when I'm unwell, or when I or my family need treatment. I listen to them when it comes to immunisation. I listen to public health specialists who tell me to wash my hands when I go to the Ekka or told me not to eat soft cheese when I was pregnant. If I were to see a groundswell of concern from doctors about the Health Insurance Commission, I'd certainly go out and speak to doctors to understand their concerns, understand what's going on and advocate on their behalf. But for immigration advice I'm going to go to experts in that field. When I need to understand border protection, I look at the ministers who have successfully protected our borders. I look to the AFP, to ASIO and to Defence, the people who have the expert advice that can properly inform a meaningful policy solution for this country.

Not only was the ethos behind the bill flawed but the drafting has proven to be really loose. Already it's been watered down by the Federal Court decision I've mentioned. Had Dr Phelps looked to the security agencies for advice or gone to the Attorney-General to understand the ramifications of this wording and how the courts would interpret it, she mightn't have introduced the bill in the first place—unless undermining offshore processing was its very intent. Had Labor not been so intent on playing politics, they might have considered their experience last time they were in government. They might have said, 'Hey, remember what happened when we opened the borders last time? That was bad. That was expensive—$16 billion a year kind of expensive. Maybe not.' But they didn't. They played the cheap point and supported the medevac amendments, foolishly ignoring the reality of the good medical care that is available to detainees on Nauru and Manus Island.

You might not know, Madam Acting Deputy President, that there are 60 healthcare professionals on the island of Nauru in the detention centre there, half of whom specialise in mental health, providing services to refugees, nonrefugees and asylum seekers. This number includes general practitioners, psychiatrists, counsellors, mental health nurses and clinical health specialists. That means there's one healthcare worker for every seven people and one mental health professional for every 14 detainees. That is an incredible ratio. It's a ratio that is far better than many of my constituents experience in rural and regional Queensland. In the event that doctors on PNG and Nauru can't provide the medical treatment that's needed, transfers are assessed on a case-by-case basis, with the approval of the minister and with medical advice, and it has been done thousands of times over in the premedevac world. The Greens and Labor like to pretend there's no medical care going on, but that's just not the fact. They like to pretend they've got a monopoly on compassion and that the coalition is just heartless when it comes to immigration, including illegal immigration. But, by stopping the boats, we've been able to increase our intake of refugees, many of whom have been sitting patiently in refugee camps for years, doing the right thing and following the proper processes. Often these are the people with the least means of all. It's because we stopped the boats and reduced the number of illegal arrivals that we've been able to increase our humanitarian migrant numbers by 27 per cent in the last five years.

Clearly, my sympathies and the sympathies of the Morrison government are with genuine refugees—those who do the right thing, apply for refugee status and then wait their turn to come to Australia. These changes weakened our borders. While this act stands, it is the perfect marketing tool for illegal people smugglers to get back in the trade. It is a flawed and dangerous act, and it must be repealed as a matter of urgency.