medivac bill
Ged Kearney and Kerryn Phelps after the House of Reps vote on medivac (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The sheer number of lies and instances of fear mongering over the medical evacuation bill is stunning compared to how relatively little the legislation actually does, but it does point to where our immigration system stands to go from here.

We had Peter Dutton claiming Richard Di Natale and Bob Brown could bring people over (false); Tony Abbott claiming there’s already ample medical care available (wrong, tragically); Christopher Pyne claiming the bill would see all detainees transferred on medical grounds (an almost-confession to what years of detention does to people); and Mathias Cormann claiming that “rapists, murderers and paedophiles will still get a free pass into this country” (horrific and wrong). 

For anyone looking for some good news, up to 300 sick people have reportedly obtained medical recommendations for the first round of transfers. This is the first win of any kind for Manus detainees in six years and that’s not nothing — or at least, it isn’t nothing to detainees.

But while independent MP Kerryn Phelps, the Greens, crossbench and, yes, Labor have likely saved a number of people in Australia’s care during a genuine mental health crisis, the bill does much, much less than what activists, lawyers and international human rights bodies are currently calling for (i.e. closing the camps).

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Change in motion

Now, even with Labor’s amendments, increased medical transfers may in fact turn out to be a “pull factor” for people smugglers. But according to ABC Indonesia reporter David Lipson the reopening of Christmas Island has caused more noise than the health bill. Labor, after years of acquiescence to the Coalition on the issue, was still willing to risk the fear campaign.

While offshore detention remains indefinite over six years because neither the Rudd nor Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments worked out where to put people after “not Australia”, the stop-gap has hit its used-by date. People are attempting self-harm almost daily on Manus. We created a rare and devastating psychiatric epidemic amongst children before #KidsOffNauru, and dozens of lawsuits have forced the Coalition into evacuations. Even Dutton, when it’s politically useful, will admit he wants people resettled. 

The Coalition has had 810 people medically transferred, moved all children to Australian detention, and even resettled some adults in the US. How did they do this without launching a new armada? Turnbacks. 

Now, towing away people who are asking for our help does not intrinsically save lives, but it’s become obvious that turnbacks — not the threat of offshore torture — have slowed new arrivals. There is now a strong argument that Manus and Nauru should be evacuated, not just because they’re facilitating torture, but because this can be done — at least according to former immigration bureaucrat Shaun Hanns — without any real spike in people smuggling

While seeking asylum by boat is and always has been a human right, post-Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years there’s next to no chance Labor will abandon turnbacks.

What all of this means for a fairly divided Labor Party and anyone in the Coalition left with a moral conscience (g’day Broadbent and Laundy), is that Australia needs to begin a new phase of asylum seeker policy.

What are the alternatives?

Andrew Wilkie’s Refugee Protection Bill, largely ignored since last year, offers a revolutionary glimpse at what’s possible, but even shorter-stage solutions exist. For example, rather than just pushing people away or paying people smugglers to take them wherever, we could monitor the asylum seekers we turn back, and then put them on a flight to Australia. 

Dutton likes to throw around the fact that 14,000 people seeking asylum are currently in Indonesia just itching to get on a boat. The obvious solution here is to end Australia’s ban on UNHCR applicants and, once again, start flying them here. Lift the total regional intake, abolish carrier sanctions and reinstate family reunion visas so others can at least get on a plane and apply for asylum in the Australian community.

At the party’s 2018 national conference, Labor refused to pledge an outright end to offshore detention but it did show genuine interest in long-term solutions with an increased intake, UN funding, and a number of federal officers aimed at smuggler hotspots.

It’s clear the medivac bill will not create snap reform. Activists will need to keep fighting to end offshore processing, including Christmas Island, and after the 20-year fight to the bottom, I doubt anyone could underestimate Australia’s current capacity for systemic cruelty.

But at least acknowledging the unsustainability of offshore detention, as well as the “Canberra bubble” that once turned Kevin Rudd from closing Manus to establishing its harshest incarnation, offers a potential turning point.