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After weeks of lobbying in Canberra, a leading paediatrician fears Australia’s toxic refugee politics will strand children on Nauru in a dire medical emergency. By Alex McKinnon.

Doctors demand medivac of Nauru children

For someone who describes himself as “not a political animal”, Dr Paul Bauert has spent much of his time in recent weeks in the halls of power in Canberra. Bauert, a paediatrician who treated children held in Wickham Point detention centre near Darwin for several years, has been central to an intensive lobbying campaign, meeting with parliamentarians “of all species” and advocating that critically ill refugee and asylum-seeker children on Nauru should be brought to Australia for urgent medical care.

Bauert has also found himself in the public eye. Last week, he delivered a petition calling on parliamentarians to act for the children’s welfare. It was signed by nearly 6000 registered doctors, about 5 per cent of all doctors in Australia. Bauert told The Saturday Paper that MPs across the political divide have acknowledged to him that the situation on Nauru is untenable.

“I haven’t come across anybody, of any political persuasion, who hasn’t said, ‘This has to stop’, after they hear how critically ill some of the kids are,” he said. “There hasn’t been one – Liberal, Labor or crossbench – who hasn’t said that. It’s the main topic of conversation for everybody in this place at the moment.”

That mood change was made evident in an unexpected place this week – the front page of the Herald Sun. It’s a rare day when a News Corp paper runs a front page about getting refugees out of detention but, on Tuesday, hiding under the splash of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s baby announcement, the paper had scored an exclusive – three Liberal MPs were publicly calling on the prime minister to abandon the government’s case-by-case approach, and to fly all children from Nauru to Australia, along with their families.

Monash MP Russell Broadbent called the continued detention of children “an embarrassing humanitarian crisis that the government needs to resolve”. Reid MP Craig Laundy said the “specifics” of children’s suicide attempts, relayed to him by doctors, had left him “extremely uneasy”. Liberal Member for Chisholm Julia Banks said: “It is the only decision that can be made based on humanitarian grounds.” Another six as-yet-unnamed MPs were reportedly supportive of medical transfers, including two cabinet ministers. One conceded the unfolding consequences of the policy of indefinite offshore detention had “crossed the threshold, and something must be done as soon as possible”.

Later that day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave some indication the government would move to allay the MPs’ concerns. He said he would take up New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s longstanding offer to resettle up to 150 refugees – if parliament passed a lapsed bill banning offshore arrivals from using New Zealand as a “back door” into Australia.

On the surface, it seemed a surprising concession from the original architect of Operation Sovereign Borders. But refugee advocates and activist doctors working inside parliament have reported a dramatic shift of opinion among MPs, who now privately concede something must be done.

Where the consensus breaks down is the question of what to do next. On Wednesday, Labor and Coalition senators voted down a motion brought by the Greens and independent Tim Storer calling on the government “to immediately bring every child in detention on Nauru to Australia for urgent medical and psychological assessment and treatment, along with the family members of children being assessed and treated”.

Morrison’s New Zealand offer is also unlikely to break the deadlock. Labor and the Greens have dismissed the proposal outright, while the Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff has called it “cruelty for cruelty’s sake”. Griff noted on Wednesday that Immigration Minister David Coleman made no attempt to reach out to the Centre Alliance to gather support for the measure, while a planned meeting between Coleman and Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm was cancelled. New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, panned the idea on Wednesday, saying it would make any refugees the country accepted “second-class citizens”.

“I think everyone’s trying to do the right thing, but they’re all so tied up with their own political point of view,” said Bauert. “I used to be cautiously optimistic, but I’m not now. They don’t seem to be keen to give an inch. I’ve just got a picture of these 80 kids in my mind the whole time. It’s really frustrating.”

In the absence of a coherent public response, the Immigration Department has authorised transfers of the most severe cases behind the scenes. Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition Sydney told The Saturday Paper at least 20 patients and their families were flown to Australia this week, creating a tug-of-war with the Nauruan government that has placed severely ill children and their families in further jeopardy. One Iranian family scheduled to fly out on Wednesday was pulled off the plane, while some of the most desperate cases are yet to be flown out.

“It’s been chaotic. There have been several cases where the situation’s deteriorated so badly that people have been medivaced without lawyers or proper legal notification,” said Rintoul.

“Last week Nauru took severe measures to stop people being transferred – charging people with criminal offences, kicking them out of hospital, threatening to arrest attempted suicide patients. One family was deliberately stopped by the Nauru government, who tried to take the kid into custody and frustrate the transfer. They think it’s the beginning of the end. If all the kids come off, they figure it’s a matter of time until the cash cow’s over.”

That would explain the disturbing shift in Nauru’s behaviour towards outside medical personnel. On Tuesday night, Nauruan police arrested Dr Nicole Montana, the senior medical officer of health contractor International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), ordering her to leave the country. IHMS has 65 medical officers on the island, including 33 mental health workers. It is the second time in just over a month that Nauru has acted against Australia’s senior medical officer; Montana’s predecessor, Dr Christopher Jones, had his visa revoked in September. Earlier this month, Nauru also expelled Médecins Sans Frontières health-care workers from the island. On Thursday, the government of Nauru denied Dr Montana was deported.

Nonetheless, the two governments seem to have come to some sort of agreement. “Transfers have started. Something’s happened between the Nauruan government and the Australian Border Force to get over those obstacles. The blockade has pretty much been lifted,” said Rintoul.

Whether the ad hoc process currently under way will transfer the most critically ill children quickly enough remains to be seen. Refugee advocacy groups have set themselves the goal of freeing all children from offshore detention by November 20, Universal Children’s Day. Bauert’s blunt assessment is that many children on Nauru are unlikely to last that long.

“Unless it’s resolved quickly, and all these kids are assessed and treated, there will be a death,” he said. “If the government and the courts keep assessing them case by case, this could drag on for weeks. Some of these children do not have weeks.”

No matter how this latest crisis pans out, the conditions that led to it will remain. Morrison’s government has no intention of letting the patients and their families stay in Australia once they have received treatment. It’s also unlikely the trio of MPs speaking out augurs any real opposition to mandatory detention. Besides ruling out crossing the floor, all three MPs have largely kept mum on the issue since Tuesday’s announcement.

Broadbent’s office said he had a longstanding policy of letting existing comments stand. Meanwhile, Laundy sent an email to supporters on Wednesday emphasising he was “working with the Prime Minister and my colleagues to find a solution for this issue” and would be “providing you with further updates in the coming weeks”. A spokesperson from his office said he would not be commenting to media until after the Wentworth byelection.

Laundy, Broadbent and Banks cannot be described as party powerbrokers. Banks is leaving parliament at the next election, citing a culture of gendered “bullying and intimidation” that came to a head during August’s leadership spill. Laundy, a loyal ally of Malcolm Turnbull, was similarly scathing of the party after the crisis, famously saying on the ABC’s 7.30 that “insanity prevails”. It’s not yet known if he will recontest his marginal seat in Sydney’s inner west.

Broadbent has been in parliament, on and off, for nearly 20 years since 1990, spending all of them as a backbencher. Most of his recent speeches in parliament, with titles such as “Celebrating brass bands” and “Bunyip soccer club”, confine themselves to local goings-on in west Gippsland.

During the Howard era, he was one of the few Liberal MPs, along with Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, to agitate against mandatory offshore detention. In 2006, the trio crossed the floor to vote against a bill mandating that all boat arrivals be processed offshore. Almost by default, Broadbent has become the last Liberal refugee advocate standing.

One Liberal figure notably absent from the debate is Dave Sharma, the party’s candidate in Wentworth. Refugee rights groups have campaigned hard in the eastern Sydney electorate, where opposition to offshore detention runs high. A poll commissioned by the Refugee Council of Australia earlier this month found 65 per cent of Wentworth voters want kids on Nauru brought to Australia.

Sharma has presented himself as the ideological successor to former member Malcolm Turnbull, able to provide a voice of reason in the party room on issues such as climate change.

On Tuesday, he told the ABC’s RN Breakfast he “would like to get everyone on Manus and Nauru resettled as quickly as possible” and would “treat it as a personal priority of mine if I was elected”.

Before becoming the Wentworth candidate, however, Sharma’s comments on asylum seekers put him at odds with most voters in the electorate he seeks to represent. In an opinion piece for The Australian in July, Sharma hit out at “self-righteous critics of Australia’s border protection policies”, saying that “we should welcome Europe’s overdue recognition of reality and its adoption of border protection and migration policies that are familiar to Australia”.

Last weekend, Sharma failed to attend a candidates’ forum organised by local advocacy group Wentworth for Refugees. Labor candidate Tim Murray also steered clear of the event, giving high-profile independent candidate Kerryn Phelps free air to condemn both major parties and call on parliament “to close Manus Island and Nauru as soon as possible”. Regardless of what happens in Wentworth, or on Nauru in coming days, that outcome seems unlikely.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Doctors demand medivac of Nauru children". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media's morning editor.