MAX COSTELLO. The real reason Christmas Island is being reopened.

Mar 7, 2019

Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter have said why Christmas Island’s immigration detention centre will be reopened, the PM’s words were uninformative, and A-G Porter’s ‘explanation’ was untrue.

Addressing the media (and thus the nation) on 12 February 2019, the day the “Medevac Bill” was passed, the Prime Minister said that “the reopening of the Christmas Island detention facilities …” was to “deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers”.

“Arrivals” – people smuggler boats carrying asylum seekers with no entry visa – are a hypothetical future prospect. The actual, current prospect is “transfers” – but the PM’s words only asserted, and did not prove, that a reopening was necessary.

The bill amends sections 198C–H and 199B of the Migration Act 1958so that doctors, not the Minister, are the main deciders of whether to transfer – “to Australia” from “a regional processing country”– an asylum seeker or refugee “for appropriate medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment”.

Porter’s ‘explanation’ was a demonstrable falsehood

Next Sunday, 17 February 2019, Mr Porter appeared on ABC TV’s “Insiders”.

He told program host Barrie Cassidy that the reopening was necessary because Immigration’s mainland centres were “at capacity”.

But centre detainees/residents, and their visitors, know that’s not true.

How? Detainees/residents know their centre’s maximum capacity because the bedrooms are numbered and there are X beds per room. Also Serco, the security contractor, posts a daily tally of how many people are being held. Capacity minus numbers held = number of spare beds.

Based on such calculations, mainland centres have some 450 vacant beds.

For example, on Wednesday 20 February 2019, two Immigration Detention Centres – Sydney’s Villawood and regional Western Australia’s Yongah Hill – had a combined total of 291 spare beds, 103 beingin Yongah Hill’s unoccupiedhigh security unit.Melbourne’s Immigration Transit Accommodation facility (MITA), had 115 spare beds.

Presumably Porter was “advised” about capacity – but by whom? Not Home Affairs, because Secretary Pezzullo would surely not allow his Department to provide information it knows to be false.

Perhaps Porter consulted former Immigration Minister Morrison and/or current Home Affairs Minister Dutton. If so, was he advised, “Just say that the mainland centres are ‘at capacity’ – Cassidy won’t challenge you”?

Porter’s “at capacity” reason is untrue: so, what’s the real reason?

A partial explanation lies in the Medevac Bill’s wording.

The Bill only specified “Australia”, not “mainland Australia”

Christmas Island, an Australian external territory is, legally, part of “Australia”.

So, if the Home Affairs Minister, accepting medical opinion, approves a transfer to Christmas Island, he is complying with the letter of the law – the Migration Act as amended.

But the omission of “mainland” didn’t provide a reasonto reopen Christmas Island; it only gave Morrison the opportunityto do so.

He won’t divulge the real reason, but we can deduce it – as follows.

The only two reasons that, if proved by evidence, would justify the reopening are (1) adequate medical treatment capacity; and (2) minimal budget impact.

There’s no medical reason to reopen Christmas Island

Because Christmas Island has only a 6-bed 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.

The real reason – sabotaging the intent of the Parliament

The above medical and financial evidence, plus the ample supply on the mainland of spare Immigration beds and appropriate medical facilities, amounts to a bullet proof case againstreopening the Christmas Island centre.

Cabinet’s decision to re-activate Christmas Island contemptuously ignores that evidence and those facts: its effect is to prevent the Medevac Bill from operating directly and cost-effectively.

We can thus deduce that the real reason for the reopening is to stymie the Bill’s operation. 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.

One more sabotage element needs mentioning.

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 be a sort of ‘second Nauru’.

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.

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