MAX COSTELLO. At his recent, expensive, tropical island media conference, the Prime Minister gave two reasons for reopening the Christmas Island detention centre. One: all the mainland centres are “full”. Two: Christmas Island, a “hardened centre”, is needed to protect mainland Australians from 57 “adverse characters” offshore. Since the first reason is an outright lie and the second implied that mainland “hardened centres” are non-existent or insecure, all he really conveyed was shameless mendacity. Then there are the issues of massive cost, medical inadequacy, and executive government sabotage of the legislature’s law. It’s time to expose the real reasons for the reopening.
Information provided on the public record by the relevant department, Home Affairs – formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) – annihilates Morrison’s two excuses for reopening the Christmas Island centre.
Immigration holding centres on the mainland are not all full
Five years ago, the department’s monthly Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary dated 31 December 2013 showed that Western Australia’s Yongah Hill detention centre – to take one example – was holding 528 people.
Yet the most recent Summary, for 31 December 2018, shows Yongah Hill holding only 310 people – leaving 218 spare beds, assuming that the centre’s total capacity has not been reduced.
But anyway, because the potential medical transferees are nearly all refugees (a few have pending asylum applications), keeping them in Immigration detention centres or holding centres is inappropriate. If not in a hospital or clinic, they should be in ‘community detention’ – housing provided by Home Affairs – as are previous medical transferees and their families.
There are three “hardened centres” on the mainland
Mr Morrison claimed that the 57 people on Manus or Nauru who are of “adverse character” – suspected or accused (but not yet found guilty) of various crimes – needed to be held at the “hardened centre” on Christmas Island, if they are medically transferred.
But there are already three hardened centres on the mainland – as the DIBP foreshadowed in its 15 November 2016 submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works.
At page 4, it mentioned “the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation [facility] (MITA), the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre (YHIDC), and Villawood IDC”.
In the 2016-17 Budget process, the Government announced … investment in [those] three … facilities … to make them fit … to manage increasing numbers of higher risk detainees.
The December 2018 Summary shows mainland centres holding a total of 409 “S501” persons. They’re people who have failed the Migration Act’s section 501 “character test” by – worst case scenario – having been found guilty (not just accused) of a serious crime and sentenced to 12 months or more of imprisonment.
So, even if all 57 “adverse characters” are transferred, three mainland “hardened centres” await them, one of which has, apparently, 200 or so spare beds.
There’s no medical reason to reopen Christmas Island
Because Christmas Island has, currently, only a tiny hospital that provides no surgery or psychiatric care, nearly all transferees would need to be flown to a mainland Immigration centre close to a relevant hospital or clinic.
But such second airlifts could exacerbate some medical risks. As Doctors for Refugees president Barri Phatarfod explained in Nicole Hasham’s “Refugee medical flights from Christmas Island to the mainland could cost up to $100,000 each” (SMH, 24/2/2019):
“It is inherently dangerous to those who have to get on and off multiple small flights with IV drips, assisted ventilation and a precarious clinical condition. Are there going to be doctors, including an anaesthetist on every leg? If so this is an extraordinary waste of money and other valuable resources.”
Reopening Christmas Island could cost millions
Probing the Austender website records of taxpayer-funded medical evacuations from the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands to the mainland, Hasham found:
each … flight this financial year has cost between $50,000 and $103,000.
Every 100 flights @ $50,000 each = $5 million.
At his media briefing, Scott Morrison admitted to a budget of $1.4 billion to upgrade Christmas Island’s medical and psychiatric capability. But why? Enough high quality resources are already available at mainland hospitals and clinics.
The real reasons – sabotaging Parliament’s intent, regaining control
The above medical and financial evidence, plus the ample supply on the mainland of “hardened” beds and appropriate medical/psychiatric facilities, amounts to a bullet proof case against reopening the Christmas Island centre.
Cabinet’s decision to re-activate Christmas Island contemptuously ignores that evidence and those facts: its effect – and purpose – is to prevent the Medevac Bill from operating directly and cost-effectively.
Instead of faithfully implementing the Legislature’s decision, the Executive is sabotaging it.
No surprise there: as Michael Koziol reported in “ ‘Whatever it takes’ …” (SMH, 28/12/2018):
“I will do everything in my power to ensure that these suggested changes … never see the light of day,” Mr Morrison said. … “I will fight them using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me … .”
Scott ‘whatever it takes’ Morrison, having lost the legislative battle, is now fighting administratively, heedless of the medical and financial consequences.
But the sabotage is not an end in itself: it aims to retake control from the doctors.
Border Force, not doctors, are the decision-makers on Christmas Island
Once transferees reach Christmas Island, the Medevac Bill provisions don’t apply – because the patients are no longer “in a regional processing country” – so doctors lose their predominant say. Instead, the Home Affairs enforcement arm, Australian Border Force (ABF), is in over-all charge, as its website explains:
We are responsible for the management of good order, safety and security within immigration detention facilities, including the health and welfare of detainees.
Given ABF’s offshore record, and Christmas Island’s remoteness from visitor/ lawyer scrutiny, transferees needing medical or psychiatric assessment might be kept waiting for months. Christmas Island could become a sort of ‘second Nauru’ – especially if, as Morrison announced, it could hold 500 people.
Admittedly, ABF also controls mainland centres close to hospitals and clinics. But, unlike Christmas Island, they are inexpensively accessible to visitors and lawyers.
Max Costello LLM, now retired, is a former prosecuting solicitor with WorkSafe Victoria. He has made submissions to Senate Committees examining abuse and neglect at offshore centres.