Morrison's medevac madness

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Never let evidence, however abundant, trouble the minds of those at the Home Affairs department in Australia. 

The Medevac legislation, a fairly small gesture of Parliament in what is otherwise Australia’s part monstrous, part indifference to refugees, has been on the shooting range of the Morrison government since it won office in May this year. 

The Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018, passed earlier this year, was modest, enabling critically ill refugees and those seeking asylum a means of transfer from offshore detention facilities to the mainland for urgent medical treatment. Significantly, it saw the privileging of medical advice over political meddling, a particularly irksome point for Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton. Since then, the Medical Evacuation Response Group has been busy securing the approval of 130 ill refugees for transfer to Australia.

Perhaps the most tiresome ground of all is the notion that the legisltion’s presence is a beacon, bright and furious, for the next round of boat arrivals. (Never mind those arrivals by air, which are now making their presence felt in Australia.) To that end, the House has voted to repeal it, leaving it now in the hands of the Australian Senate.

Another ground for repeal scuppered is the claimed powerlessness of the government to cope with security matters in dealing with the transfers. 

The Medevac legislation, Dutton has claimed with tiresome consistency, permits “people of bad character” to arrive in Australia and that they

“... are able to come and, in fact, are required to come under Labor’s laws that they passed. That is the reality.”

Despite giving medical opinion greater weight than political expediency, it has been revealed that Dutton did use ministerial powers to override the recommendations of doctors in the transfer of an individual who was an accompanying family member. 

The decision, tabled in parliament, showed that section 198G(2) of the Migration Act had been used to refuse the transfer of an Iranian individual as it 'would expose the Australian community to a serious risk of criminal conduct'.  

Dutton had been advised that

'... the accompanying family member has a history of violent and manipulative behaviour, including allegations of physical assault against his children, been investigated by the Nauruan police force for criminal activity, engaged in military service in Iran and that the department is unable to verify his identity.' 

And so another myth bites the dust — or so it should.

Undeterred, the Morrison Government is wooing potential votes in the Senate. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie is being courted like a Parisian lady of merit by Dutton and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. As ever, she is making an effort to have it both ways, suggesting concerns at the repeal legislation, but also having issues with the medevac provisions as they stand. 

This week, ahead of the handing down of the Senate’s Medevac report, Senator Lambie claimed that national security grounds should come into play:

“Especially with the tempo that is happening in the Middle East in the last four or five days.” 

And how does the Senator think that might be relevant? The answer, as with many a befuddled Australian politician since the noughties, is the same: boats, boats, boats. 


Parliament needed to

"... make sure… that those boats don’t start coming back in, and whether or not that signals, whether or not that is going to set off that domino effect.” 

Sounding much like an errand girl of the publicity wing of the Home Affairs department, Lambie noted:

“Word doesn’t always get back to people, where there are other war zones not to get on boats, because you won’t be allowed into Australia.” 

In that statement is a concise, if somewhat brazen, repudiation of international humanitarian law.

With One Nation seemingly throwing in its lot regarding the repeal legislation, and the Centre Alliance clear it will oppose any such measure, Dutton has been layering the Tasmanian senator with the creepy charm only he knows. 

To Radio 2GB, Dutton put it this way:

“In a way she looks through the lens of what would a veteran think or what would a veteran want me to do in relation to these matters.”

Telling. An army veteran, thinking like an army veteran, in responding to people fleeing suffering and seeking refuge under international refugee law. One option is to greet such individuals with refuge, shelter and medical assistance — a humane response to the consequences of war. The other is to train guns, boats and heavy paperwork on them. 

In many countries, such an approach might be seen as a sign of mental debility, or arresting imbecility. It might even be seen as a coagulation of false variables. But Dutton has managed to fuse the complex world into one under his watch: the foreigner, the refugee, the arrival, who do not comply with his sense of good order. If they do not, those in the army must agree with him. To that vacuous end, he is convinced that Australians and veterans, hardened as they are, “would want us to abolish this law”.

To the good senators of Australia, the psychic abodes of torture and ruination that characterise places such as Manus and Nauru are worth reiterating. 

In 2017, the words of a whistleblower added the ghastly contours to a grotesque policy that serves to deter and punish:

“The people I saw in Nauru, and the state they were in after being locked up there for three or four years, to me was in a way more traumatic than anything I’d seen in Afghanistan.” 

In Nauru, Martin felt crestfallen:

“I tried my best for those patients. I kept going back to do my best for these patients but I felt I’ve let them all down. The Australian Government has certainly let them down.” 

Naïve of him. The intention of the Australian Government was never to do anything but let them down, and wish for their extinguishment. 

The repeal of the medevac legislation is simply another part of that project. To treat the desperate is to humanise it.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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