On Wednesday, the Coalition finally managed to scrap medivac laws — which had made it easier for sick asylum seekers in offshore detention to seek medical treatment in Australia — after cutting a secret deal with crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Medivac’s repeal was always a priority for the Morrison government. When the bill was passed by Labor and the crossbench in February, it was the first time in 90 years a government had lost a substantive vote in the lower house.
Since the policy’s introduction, the Coalition has consistently argued that it was a loophole which could undermine Australia’s tough border protection regime.
That argument has been bolstered by a steady stream of stories which aim to discredit the laws and the people that rely on them, while also appearing to legitimise many of the Coalition’s talking points. Defenders of medivac label these stories “strategic leaks”.
A series of well-timed drops
While parliament was debating medivac in February, a classified ASIO briefing which warned the laws could compromise border protection found its way into the hands of The Australian’s Simon Benson.
That story became the first in a pattern — whenever repealing medivac was up for debate, The Australian would get an exclusive from somewhere inside the notoriously secretive border protection bureaucracy that seemed uncannily tailor-made to suit the Coalition’s agenda.
In July, right as the government was about to introduce its repeal bill for debate, the Oz got wind of “a secret border force operation … known only to a few inside government” to fly a boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted in the Indian Ocean back to Colombo.
The timing of that article wasn’t lost on Labor — opposition leader Anthony Albanese accused the government of leaking the news to the media. But in September, the same thing happened, with The Australian reporting on a “surge” of asylum seeker boats from Sri Lanka.
While the boat which triggered that article was intercepted in early August, The Australian’s exclusive wouldn’t be published until a month later, conveniently just a week before parliament was set to resume after the winter break.
The latest, successful push to undo medivac brought another run of exclusives. The day before parliament resumed for a final fortnight, The Australian reported that an asylum seeker with a history of violence had been approved for medical transfer. This week, the paper reported that 20 asylum seekers brought to Australia under the laws had been approved for resettlement to the US, and another had been charged with property damage for burning an accommodation block on Manus.
Propaganda and clickbait
Other stories have attempted to discredit the laws by releasing confidential medical information about individual asylum seekers brought to Australia.
Just two days ago, The Australian reported concerns that people were being brought to Australia for “trivial” medical issues, including gingivitis and a urinary tract infection. And last month, the Courier-Mail revealed that a man was brought to Australia after his attempt at a “DIY penis enlargement” went bad.
Such articles have garnered criticism for breaching medical ethics and willfully misrepresenting the nature of the asylum seekers’ conditions. Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff described the penis enlargement story as “propaganda and clickbait”, confirming that the Iranian man had been brought to Australia because of a serious wrist condition.
Speaking on ABC News Breakfast this week, former Independent MP and architect of the medivac laws Dr Kerryn Phelps repeatedly indicated that someone was strategically leaking this information to the media at critical times during the debate.
“The cases that have been leaked against the principles of privacy and confidentiality of these people have been done in a way that picks tiny little elements of a medical case, breaching privacy, and uses it as a political weapon against a legislation and against vulnerable people that need care,” Phelps said.
Meanwhile, Greens Senator Nick McKim took aim at the reporters who had written up so many of the pro-government leaks in the News Corp papers, calling them “propagandists and stenographers” in a heated statement shared on Twitter.
While fingers have been pointed at the government and Home Affairs, there’s as yet no solid, incriminating evidence of who is behind the various strategic leaks.
“We have to think about who has access to these records and who has something to gain,” Phelps said.