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Attorney-General's surprise move over legal loophole

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What sort of game is our Attorney-General playing? (Screenshot via YouTube)

Attorney-General Christian Porter revealed the discovery of a loophole in the Medevac Bill to the Murdoch press, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IN AN ASTOUNDING MOVE on Thursday, Australia’s most senior lawmaker, Attorney-General Christian Porter, aired his concerns about a “serious legal loophole” in the medical transfer Bill passed by parliament last week. He aired these concerns not in the House of Representatives, as we are entitled to expect, but firstly in Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph.

The Medevac Bill is intended to enable the speedy transfer of sick refugees and asylum seekers currently in offshore detention to Australia for urgent medical treatment. Mr Porter claims to have received advice from the Solicitor-General that the Bill as it now stands will prevent the Government from returning people to Manus and Nauru after their treatment is completed. Mr Porter has refused to disclose this advice to the public, or to the Opposition.

It is very telling that our Attorney-General does not first go to Parliament with his concerns about a new law, but to a Murdoch tabloid. In view of this choice, the sincerity of Mr Porter’s concerns must be questioned. Parliament is sitting on Thursday, the last sitting day until April. Yet Mr Porter takes his urgent concerns not to the House, where they can be properly addressed, but to the Murdoch media, where they cannot.

How, then, can Mr Porter’s concerns about a “serious legal loophole” possibly be genuine?

According to Senate Estimates evidence earlier this week, 1,246 refugees and asylum seekers have come to Australia for medical treatment in the last five years. 282 have been returned to Manus and Nauru, most of them before 2015. There are 964 people still in Australia.

The number of people already here after medical transfers over the last five years was not mentioned by Mr Porter, who instead has chosen to focus on future transfers made under the new legislation. 

It is self-evident, one would think, that the “serious legal loophole” he claims to be entirely new has existed for some time – at least six years – and every one of those years under his Government’s watch.

Yet Mr Porter would have us believe the Bill passed last week has created a brand new crisis, one that is entirely the responsibility of the Opposition and crossbenchers who enabled the passage of the amended Bill. Despite delegating responsibility for this state of affairs to the Parliament, he doesn’t appeal to the Parliament to take action to close the “serious legal loophole”.

He goes to the Daily Telegraph.

In going first to the Murdoch press, Christian Porter has confirmed his Government’s rampant politicisation of sick refugees and asylum seekers to whom we owe a duty of care. The LNP Government and its enablers have entirely lost sight of the reality that there are human beings in dire need of medical assistance. They are going to extreme lengths to deny those people access to treatment.

Our Government is spending millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to ensure that sick people do not receive the medical treatment they need. 

It is absolutely shocking to have to type those words.

It should disturb everyone that the Attorney-General of this country bypasses our Parliament and our democratic process to draw attention to what he claims is a “serious legal loophole” that affects Australia’s national security. It should disturb everyone that he instead takes his concerns to a Murdoch media outlet. It is intolerable that our laws are deemed seriously flawed by the highest law officer in the country, not in our Parliament, but in the Daily Telegraph. This is a profound betrayal of his office and the Australian people. Christian Porter should resign.

The only solution to the serious problem he claims we are suddenly facing is that the Parliament amend the legislation to close the loophole. He has denied Parliament the opportunity to do this and, in so doing, he has brought his office into serious disrepute.

In an interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast this Thursday, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus stated that if the Government will release the Solicitor-General’s advice and there is indeed found to be a problem, the Opposition is willing to work with the Government through the last sitting day to address that problem. Mr Porter has not accepted this offer.

Either the seriousness of the legal loophole is grossly exaggerated by Mr Porter, or he is deliberately refusing an opportunity to close this loophole immediately. Either way, Australians are entitled to expect their Attorney-General will act professionally in the matter of our laws and address any concerns first with our Parliament, not with the Murdoch press.

If our Attorney-General, of all people, cannot abide by and respect our democratic processes, he is unfit for office and needs to go.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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