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

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.