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While the government celebrates the medevac repeal, Labor and the Greens push for detail – and documentation – of the pact struck with Senator Jacqui Lambie. By Mike Seccombe.

Lambie’s secret medevac bargain

Jacqui Lambie sits in the front row of the senate, squeezed between Labor and the Greens at the top of the horseshoe. Not quite as far from Mathias Cormann as one can get, but almost.

It was just before 11am on Wednesday when Cormann, the government’s leader in the upper house, walked over to have a not-quiet-enough word with Lambie, upon whose vote rested the fate of the Coalition’s effort to repeal the medevac legislation, a decency forced upon it almost a year ago. Lambie had previously indicated her preparedness to vote with the government, subject to its agreement to certain unspecified conditions.

A determined rearguard action was under way at the time, against the government’s move for repeal. Labor had brought amendments, trying to have the whole thing deferred until next year and trying – unsuccessfully – to ensure those asylum seekers in extreme mental and physical distress, and refugees already in the pipeline for medical attention in Australia, would still be able to be transferred here.

When Cormann took his walk across the chamber, Labor’s Katy Gallagher had moved an order for production of documents, which would, if passed, have compelled the tabling of anything relevant to the “secret deal” before the bill could pass the senate.

The government didn’t want that, and it was voted down.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who was sitting at the next desk to Lambie’s, was one of several people who claim to have overheard what happened next.

“Senator Cormann came up to Senator Lambie and said, ‘Is it okay, I’m going to say there’s no deal?’ And he goes ahead and does that,” Di Natale told a press conference after the sitting.

“Senator Lambie then stands up and goes into great detail about how she’s been negotiating with the government on a secret deal but can’t reveal the contents of it because of national security.”

Whether Di Natale’s recollection is entirely accurate – he later conceded his quoting of Cormann was not verbatim but “words to the effect of”, and he did not hear Lambie’s reply, although he thought he saw a grim nod – it’s hard to dispute his central point that one party or the other was not telling the truth.

Cormann’s denial of a deal appeared unequivocal.

“There is no secret deal,” he told the senate. “There will be no change to our strong border protection arrangements. There will be no change to our strong national security arrangements. And there will be no change in the way we deal with the legacy case load that Labor left behind …”

Lambie, however, insisted through tears that she had forced change on the government and that repeal did not mean “we can go back to the way things used to be”.

She continued: “… I put a proposal to the government, and since then we have worked together really hard to advance that proposal … As a result of that work, I’m more than satisfied that the conditions are now in place to allow medevac to be repealed.”

But still she would not say what change had been achieved, beyond giving the government a badly needed but narrow 37-35 political win and returning Australian policy to the status quo ante – where decisions about the medical care of long-detained, desperate people were not driven by doctors but fought slowly and expensively through the courts.

“… When I say I can’t discuss it publicly due to national security concerns, I am being 100 per cent honest to you,” Lambie said. “My hand is on my heart and I can stand here and say that I will be putting at risk Australia’s national security interest if I said anything else about this.”

Refugee advocates were genuinely confused. And distressed. Di Natale, a doctor himself, said: “This was a shred of hope those people were clinging on to, and now it’s gone. We know that already [there have been] 12 deaths. And I worry that more people will die as a result of the decision of this government.”

There is reason for such concern. Madeline Gleeson, of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, told a senate inquiry into the repeal bill in August that her research since 2012 had shown reports of self-harm and mental health problems among those in offshore detention tracked to political developments in Canberra.

“Nauru and Manus Island might seem to everyone here to be very far away, but the reality is that the decisions made here have a very real impact on the state of people over there,” she said.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, the chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, was only too aware of the potential consequences of the senate vote.

“What makes it so deeply problematic – beyond the way it betrays our democracy and the will of the majority of Australians – is that it has been done without anyone knowing what has been traded off here. We’ve got refugees wanting to know what it means for them,” he told The Saturday Paper in the wake of the repeal.

“I’ve already got my team on the phone, on WhatsApp, on email trying to reassure sick refugees, of which there are still hundreds left behind, that we’re still there for them and they should not lose hope.

“We are gutted and we are devastated. Yet Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton sit there thinking they have a victory. How ghoulish and depraved that is: stripping away medical care from sick refugees, just before Christmas,” he said.

The uncertainty is made all the more cruel because it could so easily be resolved.

On the latest numbers from the government, only 464 refugees and asylum seekers remain on Manus and Nauru. Some 250 of them have been given provisional approval for resettlement in the United States under a deal agreed between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama, and reluctantly honoured by Donald Trump.

The widespread belief among media – and those close to the negotiations between Lambie and the government, including Morrison himself – is that there is a deal. Or, to split semantic hairs, as the government appears to be doing, an understanding that, at the conclusion of the US resettlement program, the government will take up the New Zealand offer.

There is no firm date for the end of the US deal, but it is expected American authorities will finish the process of interviewing applicant refugees in January or February, with security, medical and other checks likely to take another six to nine months.

A number of people with knowledge of Lambie’s deliberations over whether she should back the repeal vote believe there must be a letter – some written record of the terms of the agreement between the senator and the government. Without it, the government would have to be trusted on its word alone. Questions lobbed in the senate this week suggest Labor and the Greens think much the same.

Asked for confirmation or denial about the existence of such a letter, a spokesperson said Senator Lambie would not comment.

In the senate, Kristina Keneally pushed Lambie on the issue. “Do you trust this prime minister?” she asked.

The Labor senator recited a long list of Morrison promises, unfulfilled: to ban the expulsion of LGBTQIA+ students; to introduce religious discrimination laws by the end of the year; to deliver a national integrity commission; to protect dairy farmers; to act on the recommendations of the banking royal commission. It continued.

“So,” Keneally demanded, “how can Senator Lambie have any confidence they will deliver on whatever secret deal she has struck with this government?”

Precedent does exist for a New Zealand deal, set by Morrison’s hero John Howard – who also talked tough about border security, then quietly accepted then prime minister Helen Clark’s offer and sent 150 MV Tampa survivors to New Zealand, where they have thrived.

Abbas Nazari, aged seven when he was saved by the Tampa in 2001 and resettled in New Zealand, was this year awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at Columbia University, after graduating with first-class honours from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

“I think with the Tampa case in particular it was a case of moral leadership from the Clark government of the time,” Nazari, now 23, told The Guardian in June. “It just took the prime minister to put her hand up and say, ‘Fuck it, we’re doing this.’ ”

The chances of a deal were also bolstered in February, when the government was talking up the repeal of medevac and flagged a “lifetime ban bill” – legislation that would permanently prevent any refugees sent to New Zealand from making their way to Australia.

There is also the reality that popular opinion has shifted. Multiple polls have found border security is no longer the concern it once was, that young people in particular strongly favour a more humane approach, and that 60 per cent or more of all people favoured medevac. As well they might, given the government’s dire prediction a year ago – that bringing people here for medical treatment would be a pull factor for more boats full of desperate refugees – has not come to pass.

Given all that, one might wonder why the government was so determined to repeal a popular policy that was working. And there is no obvious answer, except that politicians fear nothing so much as looking weak by changing their minds.

They must appear tough. And Morrison talked tough at his media conference on Wednesday afternoon. He said the government had “stood up” against “loopholes” in the medevac legislation, which was always about getting people into the country “through the back door”.

More than 1000 people, including family members of the sick, have made it to Australia from offshore detention, Morrison said in dire tone, as though the number alone vindicated his government’s actions. He offered no evidence of negative consequences.

But there is a price for looking tough. Mostly it will be paid by the sick refugees and asylum seekers bunged up offshore. But politicians who come to be seen as slippery and intransigent also eventually pay.

The signs are there already for Morrison. The latest Newspoll recorded a precipitous fall in his approval rating, down 24 points from plus 15 to minus 9 since July.

One can only speculate on the reasons, but the judgement of Stirling Griff, one of two Centre Alliance senators – who hold an important share of the balance of senate power and have been amenable to supporting the government on a range of issues – suggests a reason.

“This is a government that thrives on secrecy and shows utter disdain for democratic process,” he said.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Lambie’s secret medevac bargain". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.