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The eternal market: Refugees in Scomoland

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Attorney-General Christian Porter appearing on Insiders (Screenshot via YouTube)

Criticism continues over the Medevac Bill legislation, now coming from Attorney-General, Christian Porter, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE BODY POLITIC IS ROTTEN and its teeth are falling out. That, at least, is the sense regarding any survey of governing politics in Canberra. The passage of the Medevac Bill triggered a round of cheers and whooping. It should never had been required to begin with. The focus of that bit of badly-drafted legislation (read it and weep for the English language) was simple enough: certain asylum seekers and refugees in a critically ill state would be permitted, under certain conditions, to seek medical care in Australia. The plight of those on Manus Island and Nauru, or lack thereof, has been documented extensively from Australian legal representatives to members of Médecins Sans Frontières

Once passed, the Morrison Government gave the impression that raping barbarians and molesting hordes would be charging through Australia’s gates. Australians saw the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, cry foul.

The Medevac Bill, he argued, permits individuals to be transferred to Australia who are either charged and not convicted, or convicted yet not sentenced.

“At the very last moment, Labor put an amendment in that would give some discretion to the minister to stop people who are criminals, in effect, from coming to Australia.” 

Sentencing, being “a very long tunnel” complicated things; ministerial discretion, he warned the Australian public, could not be guaranteed to keep such individuals out. 

Reading between these ill-chosen lines and the supposition on Porter’s part becomes clear — whether you are charged or convicted, notably for crimes committed in conditions of indefinite detention, you should not be entitled to appropriate medical care. We turned you into rotters, so perish as rotters.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for the most part, was seeing a beautiful edifice rented. Labor, tweeted the Ad Man, ‘have learned nothing from their past failures and cannot be trusted to keep our borders and Australia strong’.

The Coalition’s border protection policy, Morrison reiterated with characteristic shoddiness, ‘stopped the boats, stopped the deaths at sea, closed the detention centres, removed all children from detention and from Nauru’.  To the hustling values of an advertising man, facts are best left untended.

Former Prime Minister, the ever-menacing Tony Abbott, has made it clearer than most that the Government want to make Medevac an electoral issue. Be humanitarian and be damned. On the Ben Fordham Show, he parked a few traditional bombs.

People smugglers, he claimed:   

The conduct of the Morrison Government – trenchant dog whistling, condemning refugees, whipping hysteria and a fantasy of terror – comes with another important element: corruption. This is an essential part of Operation Sovereign Borders and, for that matter, the global refugee racket — where there is suffering there is money to be made by all concerned. The people smugglers provide a necessary alibi for officials in Canberra; in truth, the trafficker supplies the service of the necessary hangman at cost. It also gives the rather dubious impression that the Government maintains a moral upper hand.

Since people will always avail themselves of their rights under the Refugee Convention, there will always be a market. It follows that such a market is to be exploited to the hilt, even as it is condemned as an unsavoury “business model”. Hence, Australian officials bribing Indonesian fishermen to remove refugees and asylum seekers from visibility, or the award of dubious contracts to even more dubious contractors.    

The shadiest of shady contractors, Paladin, can count itself as a high-water mark in diddling the books. It was born, appropriately enough, as High Risk Security Asia Pacific. The world of refugee processing (the term reminds one of fruit canning) can be dastardly lucrative, as evidenced by Paladin’s receipt of contracts through a closed-tender process.

For 22 months of work, it received something in the order of $423 million. Three refugee centres located on Manus Island were ostensibly receiving services from the company whose registered address is 134 Nepean Esplanade, an inconspicuous beach shack on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Those services are fascinatingly grotesque in cost, exceeding a daily rate twice that for a five-star hotel suite with Sydney Harbour views.

The Home Minister, Peter Dutton, had “no line-of-sight” over the process; Porter insisted on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that no minister would have:

“Standard procurement processes are often at arms-length from the minister.” 

The operative term here being, of course, “standard”.

This whole sorry affair was also given a rounding up of nastiness with the announcement that the recently-closed detention facility on Christmas Island would be re-opened to deal with transferees from Nauru Island and Manus. The Morrison Government remains fanatical — any place but the Australian mainland.

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo did issue the mildest of qualifications in Senate Estimates: 

“Clearly… it goes without saying that if specialised treatment is only available on the mainland then the mainland will be utilised.”

Those instrumental in passing the initial Medevac Bill should have been fuming. Instead, it was a chance for the opposition Labor Party to reverse its initial position and suggest that it would have no problem permitting treatment on the island, an astonishing situation given that treatment facilities there would, in most cases, be worse than either Manus or Nauru. The spectacle of the cruel absurd continues.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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