Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A shameless deal that dare not speak its name

It was always going to be a challenge, even with the signatures of thousands of doctors and advocacy by health groups, to keep Medevac. On Capital Hill, hearts have been hardened towards refugees over time, for so long.

With help from Labor, the Coalition has entrenched a harsh offshore prison system that has created profound sickness.

In his stunning memoir of time spent on Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, Kurdish Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, describes the extraordinary lengths detainees must go through to get any basic care. There are arbitrary rules and forms to fill out just to have a toothache seen to, knowing all along that there are no dentists on the island for detainees.

It would be absurd and comical if it wasn’t so serious and cruel.

Other rules, like excluding games and music, squeezing the agency and hope of people who had arrived on Manus and Nauru relatively well, piled up without any logic. People went mad with pain with no light relief or capacity to create respite.

Having made factories for mental illness, the Coalition then used the courts, armed with buckets of tax-payer money, to deny sick people the care they needed in Australia. In a futile misuse of resources, every time the government disputed a doctor’s recommendation a patient be urgently transferred, the court found in favour of the patient.

The Medevac laws thanks to Independent MP Kerryn Phelps, came into effect early this year to reduce the risk of prolonged, unnecessary delays, costly court cases, uncertainty and politicisation of medical decisions relating to asylum seekers.

It was grounded in years of evidence of the harm done, of preventable illnesses and deaths caused by the conditions of offshore detention imposed by successive governments and a litany of failures to provide appropriate healthcare in a timely manner.

Medevac provided a clear, practical and formal process with the establishment of an expert panel of clinicians who had the power to investigate and advise on the health matters.

It never compromised national security. It never impacted refugee determinations. The Minister had discretion to intervene at every step. The majority of those who were transferred for care moved from hospital into community detention in Australia with no known threats to security.

The law was working to save lives, albeit lives reduced by years of neglect.

Medevac’s repeal, secured with secrecy, will further compromise the already compromised health of vulnerable people.

It betrays fundamental values and the integrity of Australia’s entire medical profession, as articulated by Médecins Sans Frontières because it ‘effectively hands power back to unqualified officials, entrenching dangerous precedents’.

Boochani may have found some relief travelling to New Zealand after years in indefinite detention but many others are back to square one, as the offshore camps continues to break people with no prospect of being put back together.

What we need is to fundamentally change the system so to uphold international human rights obligations that Australia has signed up for under the Geneva Refugee Convention.

We may not know what deal Jacqui Lambie struck with the Morrison government but we must continue to appeal to the decency of our elected representatives to find a more sustainable, humane and accountable solution going forward.