Medevac law should stand

Published on Wed 24 July 2019 6:57pm

No-one who turns their mind to what the medevac law has enabled could seriously want to see that process removed. Despite all the hyperventilating about what would occur if the laws were passed, the only thing that has occurred is that seriously unwell asylum seekers have received proper medical care.

Mr Wilson (6:57pm) — I’m going to begin and end my contribution by making the same simple point: the medevac law, passed earlier this year in the 45th Parliament, has allowed desperate and damaged people to receive urgent and necessary medical care on the advice of highly qualified Australian medical professionals appointed by the minister and it does so with due regard to any reasonable security concerns.

There isn’t a reasonable basis for removing a process that allows the medical evacuation of people who need the urgent medical attention that they’re not getting. The member for Isaacs gave a brilliant example earlier of the failures of the system, the failures of the minister and the literally grave consequences that have followed those failures. It’s only possible to understand this bill as a kind of narrow-minded tit for tat. The medevac laws were passed against the government’s wishes, so they have to be removed. They were passed in defiance of the member for Dickson’s kind of all-powerful bleak vision of impending apocalypse, so they have to be removed. They don’t sit with his insistence on pretending that only by being oblivious to the care of people in offshore detention and only by conduct that is mean and cruel and confected in its kind of cartoonish toughness is this country kept safe, and that is ridiculous. That’s why these laws apparently have to be removed. It’s not how we should make policy and laws in this place. It’s petty, it’s cruel and it will do harm.

No-one who turns their mind to what the medevac law has enabled could seriously want to see that process removed. Despite all the hyperventilating about what would occur if the laws were passed, the only thing that has occurred is that seriously unwell asylum seekers have received proper medical care. I’m not surprised that there has hardly been a government member who has spoken in support of the bill whose purpose is to get rid of medical evacuations on the advice of medical professionals. All of us in this place know that there are people in offshore detention who are seriously and acutely unwell. They haven’t had and don’t have access to appropriate medical care.

The 2018 report from the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International noted:

… the men sent to PNG are being broken, as their physical and mental health rapidly decline. Some have died. Others have become permanently disabled and one man has become blind. Many are suffering from chronic illnesses.

In 2016, the UNHCR found that 88 per cent of those on Manus Island were suffering from depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder, which were found in ‘the highest recorded rates of any surveyed population’. We have to ask ourselves: is it really surprising that men, women and children who are in offshore detention on an indefinite basis are suffering that kind of chronic and severe mental ill health in particular? It shouldn’t be. They’re people who have fled persecution. They’ve experienced trauma. Some have experienced physical violence, torture or rape. They have fled war or civil war. They’ve left their homes and homelands, fearing for their lives and the lives of their families. They’ve fled with nothing and they’ve left friends and family behind.

These are circumstances that it would be hard for most people in this country to take hold of and really grasp, but they are circumstances that many families in Australia have experienced or are connected to. Indeed, there are people in this place whose families came to Australia in circumstances not all that different. We’re a migrant nation. Throughout our modern history we’ve received refugees and people otherwise fleeing the aftermath of war and conflict.

I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to be in serious fear of my life and at the same time have to accept that there’s nowhere I can turn and no protection from local authorities or government or the law; in fact, those things are often the source of the threat. But surely all of us can understand that people who have been through that experience—fleeing Nazi Germany, fleeing the Khmer Rogue, fleeing the Taliban, fleeing any number of conflicts that have occurred and are occurring—would seek asylum from those conditions if they possibly could.

The people on Manus and Nauru have been waiting for that asylum for six years and, in some cases, they’ve been seeking asylum for longer than that. On top of past trauma and persecution, they have suffered, and they continue to suffer, the uncertainty and stress and hopelessness of indefinite detention. They’re separated from family. They’re detained. They’re effectively incarcerated. They desperately want to be resettled, to recover and to get on with their lives, yet it seems that they have less and less hope of that occurring. Their lives have been trauma, dislocation, detention, isolation and hopelessness. Taken all together, that is a recipe for mental ill health, and it’s no great surprise it’s producing serious mental ill health—illnesses that are as acute and severe as you would want to imagine. People are hurting themselves. Children are hurting themselves. They don’t want to be alive anymore in the conditions they experience.

In September 2018, there were still 109 children on Nauru. A joint report from the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre noted:

Children as young as 7 and 12 are experiencing repeated incidents of suicide attempts, dousing themselves in petrol, and becoming catatonic.

Last year, in the aftermath the Wentworth by-election, the government began moving children and families from Nauru. I think it is a terribly sad comment on how we respond to the clear evidence of harm and the clear prospect of preventable harm that it took a by-election loss for the government to make that happen. But I’m glad that something shifted.

Children who have lived most or all of their life in detention are seriously sick. Thankfully, some of them are now getting proper health care. The Independent Health Advice Panel has said:

There is no access to high-quality inpatient psychiatric care in Nauru and patients with severe mental illness and at high risk of suicide should be transferred to a hospital with appropriate inpatient psychiatric care.

I know there were children from Nauru who received inpatient care for acute mental ill health in WA late last year on that basis. There were kids in the new Perth Children’s Hospital—a young child and a parent in a locked ward with an Australian Border Force or Serco employee stationed at the door. You’re not in that kind of place unless you have been assessed by Australian professionals as being a child whose survival is at risk. I know everyone in this place cares about the wellbeing of children. We all acknowledge the need to do better when it comes to mental health care, especially for Aboriginal kids. And we need to do better for those who are still in offshore detention centres.

The medevac bill, passed in the 45th Parliament, passed in this chamber only a few months ago, was one small, necessary, sensible, compassionate, Christian step in that direction. Allowing the men, women and children who are or have been in offshore detention to receive appropriate medical care through a proper process does not in any way affect the security or safety of Australians. That is an enormously serious topic. If you respect that, if you seriously say that the highest priority of leadership and of government is the safety of the Australian people, you should never stand up and trail that about in defence of what is being done here. It is a serious duty. It should not be used by a government or by a minister who simply wants to make himself out to be the toughest, baddest person who ever walked around. There is no courage in that. It is ridiculous, and we see it in here every day.

So far there have been 77 transfers, with 19 cases referred to the Independent Health Advice Panel, which was appointed by the government. Of those referred cases, the minister’s challenge on health grounds has been upheld on 12 occasions and overturned on seven occasions. The minister has not used his power to deny any transfer on the basis of national security, public safety or character grounds. He has never sought to use that power which he has. In other words, the system is working. People in desperate ill health and on the brink of survival finally have the opportunity, on medical advice, to get the kind of health care that they desperately need.

So I end as I began: the medevac law passed earlier this year, in the 45th Parliament, allows—and has allowed—desperate and damaged people to receive urgent and necessary medical care on the advice of highly qualified Australian medical professionals appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, and it does so with due and proper regard to any reasonable security concerns. There is no reasonable basis to change that. When we vote on it shortly I really hope that those opposite hold on to what they are doing, because they are turning their back on a sensible piece of law that has enabled an absolutely desperately needed process for people who are hurting themselves and who are dying because they are so mentally unwell. There’s no reasonable basis on which to take away that process. There’s no reasonable basis for this bill. The medevac system should not be changed. Thank you.

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