refugee medical review panel

At the top of the week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was courting the crossbench, seemingly in an attempt to avoid a humiliating and historic loss in the House of Representatives and the possibility of a snap election. The legislation that puts them in this predicament is Kerryn Phelps’ Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill. 

Morrison’s proposed response would nominally address two of the major points in the bill. Firstly, removing the last children in detention on Nauru (the final four will soon be in the US); secondly, establishing an independent medical review panel to assess cases among refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru or Manus and, if necessary, recommend immediate transfer to Australia.

Once that failed to dent crossbench support for Phelps’ original bill, Morrison’s rhetoric skewed aggressive, ruling out calling an election if they lose the vote (“I will simply ignore it”) and, in a typical display of statesmanship, calling the bill “stupid”. 

Four hundred people will come — single males — from Manus Island [and] Nauru … which will overwhelm our detention centres … Someone who’s a paedophile, who’s a rapist, who has committed murder — any of these other crimes — can just be moved on the say-so of a couple of doctors on Skype.

By a staggering coincidence, today the stenographers for Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton at The Daily Telegraph ran a front page piece alleging asylum seekers are already gaming the system of medical transfers and arguing the new bill would make it even easier to do so.

The rhetoric around Morrison’s “bowing to pressure” from Phelps implies his policy is a major shift. Is that really the case?

What’s in place now?

Late last year, the minutes from meetings conducted by the hitherto highly secretive Transitory Persons Committee (TPC) — which currently considers requests for medical transfers — were released under freedom of information requests from the ABC and BuzzFeed News. They made for damning reading. The TPC discussed eradicating the longstanding requirement that medical care in offshore detention facilities must meet “Australian standards” and decided it was “prudent” to avoid “close scrutiny”:

… [REDACTED] may have presented with symptoms well before the department was first notified; once notified there appears to be a two week period where it is unclear how his case was managed; and then the tempo of subsequent actions. For these reasons it was noted that it would be prudent that close scrutiny be avoided.

Further, it revealed the makeup of the panel: largely lawyers and bureaucrats, with medical officers attending as advisers (rather than committee members). The current TPC panel has a role for a chief medical officer which lay vacant between November 2017 and July 2018.

What does the Phelps bill require?

Apart from the immediate transfer of of all children and their families to Australia for “medical or psychiatric assessment”, the bill would amend the Migration Act 1958 to require the “temporary transfer to Australia of transitory persons on Manus Island or Nauru, and their families, if they are assessed by two or more treating doctors as requiring medical treatment”. Upon this recommendation the immigration minister would have to approve the transfer unless he or she “reasonably believes” it would harm security.

Further, Phelps rejected Morrison’s “rapist/paedophile” argument (the immigration debate equivalent of Godwin’s law) saying it only applied to people who had been granted refugee status, and thus had been assessed as not having committed a serious crime.

What is Morrison offering?

Morrison’s proposal sets up a panel like that of Phelps’ legislation. However, this panel could only scrutinise decisions; it would have no power to override them — much like the current system. Phelps has dismissed this as unsatisfactory, while opposition leader Bill Shorten has bravely committed to “look at the detail” of Morrison’s proposal. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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