Thursday 6 December was the final sitting day of the Australian Parliament for 2018 and one of only 10 sitting days between now and next May when an election is expected. It was a day to get things moving. Yet far more was undone than done, and not just for the asylum seekers and refugees held in indefinite, punitive detention off-shore, or the 6000 Australian doctors and the Australian Medical Association speaking up for their care.
With at least as much consequence, and in response to an imploding Government’s need to appear “strong” on border protection (if nothing else), two fairly vital principles of democracy were jettisoned: majority rule and truth-telling. Closing down the Parliament early in an undisguised effort to avoid a vote in the house that the now-minority Government would have lost, using Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson as well as Mathias Cormann to play ugly delaying games in the Senate, and employing rhetoric further demonising the ALP as well as refugees, the Morrison government unhinged itself from the facts, at a canter.
Since the Tampa and John Howard’s Government’s “children overboard” lies of 2001, Coalition politicians have strenuously delegitimised as well as dehumanised people seeking asylum in Australia. They see this as a vote winner in a time of uncertainty and when they themselves lack visionary or even constructive policies. Thursday’s tactics merely confirmed that. That this negatively affects real people’s lives who are already suffering is self-evident. But evidence-denying rhetoric also affects our body politic, eroding trust even further that this Government is fit to…well, govern.
At issue is not the “dismantling of off-shore processing as we know it,” as Morrison and his media chorus are claiming. Nor is this a signal to people smugglers to attempt to circumvent the heavily funded boat turnback policies implemented by the Australian Navy (and supported by well-respected contributors to this blog, as well as the Shorten Shadow Cabinet). The facts are far less heated. But who would know that without following this closely? And that’s where danger lies.
Indefensibly inaccurate assertions from a failing government continue to multiply, including from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg who said on ABC’s Insiders (9 December), of the refugees and those seeking asylum, “A lot of the people, that thousand cohort, who are mainly male, are not genuine refugees.” The October figures from Senate estimates refute that. Of the men on Manus or in PNG, 495 out of 626 have refugee status; of the 652 then on Nauru, 541 were refugees and 88 were still in the process of assessment.
The Daily Telegraph goes further. Claiming “inside knowledge” of “legal advice” from the Morrison Government they assert that people seeking asylum convicted of murder or rape would be allowed entry to Australia under “Bill Shorten’s softened border protection policy”. Desperate days? Desperate indeed because in failing to name any actual individuals charged with crimes this stains the reputation of 600 men by association, men the Prime Minister has assured us we would not want to live next door to…who include, not incidentally, the magnificent Kurdish poet and peace activist, Behrouz Boochani and Somalian human rights activist Abdul Aziz Adam. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar but is a stab at the health of human society.”
What actually did happen in that last sitting period was that a bill was proposed by the new Member for Wentworth and former AMA President, Dr Kerryn Phelps. This would allow medical decisions about seriously ill refugees and asylum seekers to be made by medical doctors rather than the public servants who have been using lengthy, sometimes obstructionist processes, often requiring costly legal intervention. Dr Phelps’ bill did not satisfy the very real security concerns of the ALP. It therefore segued into amendments to the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (2018) that were passed by the Senate on Thursday evening.
These amendments would indeed see medical doctors making vital medical decisions. As crucially, they would allow an independent panel of doctors to review off-shore medical services, something that the Government has disallowed even to the AMA, despite repeated requests. Because of those live security sensitivities, the amendments also include a provision for the Minister to refuse or approve a transfer within a 24-hour time-frame. Even this, though, could not silence Scott Morrison who in a day of accusations suggested that Bill Shorten is “a clear and present threat to Australia’s safety”. With even less dignity or logic, Morrison – who earlier in the week had named the ALP as his “enemy” – said, “I’ll fight them [the ALP] using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me to ensure that we do not undermine our border protection laws.”
To date, the price of resistance to transfers on medical grounds has been high. Medecin Sans Frontiers report the despair on Nauru is worse than they have seen with victims of torture. (Hopelessness, lack of purpose and meaning is torture.) Children and some adults are suffering the potentially fatal resignation syndrome. Twelve men have died on Manus. There have been more than 20 suicide attempts in recent weeks. Yet medical transfers are fiercely resisted by Home Affairs and Peter Dutton, the Minister who suggested that “a single act of compassion” could allure people smugglers.
The public does care about refugee children and their medical care. It remains relevant that since December 2017 court orders or legal intervention have been needed for 84 ill children to come to Australia for care, some so ill they have had to be intubated to survive the transfer. These processes are costly in dollar terms and even worse in delays. Since July, the Government has spent $480,000 fighting medical transfers of critically ill children from Nauru. This utterly refutes Morrison’s claims that the services on Nauru or Manus are adequate. Or that he has personally been bringing children to Australia “quietly”.
It is now a matter of public record that the Transitory Persons Complex Case Review Committee – which has final say on medical transfers – has discussed eradicating the requirement that offshore facilities must meet Australian standards. They do not. And when it comes to mental health services, they meet no standards at all.
Frydenberg may assert that in making changes to health provisions to refugees, “Labor is putting up the white flag to the people smugglers and in so doing will weaken our borders.” But with significant border protections in place, and with tens of thousands of overstayers or people seeking protection arriving annually by plane, history will judge this harshly.
Refugees and asylum seekers in off-shore centres are subject to daily harassment and punitive humiliations, including being identified not by name but by boat number. Five years into an indefinite sentence for the no-crime of seeking safety, they suffer a potentially fatal loss of hope. To their credit, it’s Australian doctors in their many thousands who understand this. With irrefutable evidence on the doctors’ side, that concern is clearly challenging a rattled Government. For what those doctors’ persistent advocacy demonstrates is how these policies and this medical emergency diminish us as a nation, almost as much as they crush those we are shunning.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a long-time peace activist and the author of many books including Seeking the Sacred and Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. She is a strong supporter of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Her husband, Darwin-based Dr Paul Bauert, represents paediatricians on the AMA, and has been closely involved with refugee health care on- and off-shore for more than a decade. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in a shorter form on 8 December 2018.