Jana Favero and
Kon Karapanagiotidis

The importance of medevac

It’s hard to believe, but here we are again. The dying days of parliament for 2019 and we’re back in Canberra fighting for medical care for refugees.

This time last year we were here too, lobbying to get the last remaining kids off Nauru, for the medevac laws to be passed.

Then we found ourselves needing to constantly remind politicians that, with each political decision, lives are in the balance. That political negotiation bears a terrible human cost.

Now the task is arguing that the laws must be saved.

Every time we arrive in Canberra – backed up by polling, evidence, experts, human stories and experience from the coalface – we ask ourselves, how is it possible that, yet again, we are arguing for people to do the right thing? For people seeking asylum to be treated fairly and with dignity.

This week, it seems as though the entire refugee sector – with support from the Australian Medical Association and peak medical bodies – has descended on our nation’s capital to plead for medevac. Day after day, we have put forward the same clear arguments, while trying to counter whatever propaganda the government has vomited out.

It’s obvious the government will stop at nothing to ram through the repeal before parliament rests for the Christmas break. But they are not there yet.

Medevac works, medevac is saving lives, limbs and hope. It is a clinical process, led by doctors – robust, orderly – wherein 86 per cent of all successful applications are in fact approved by Peter Dutton himself. Before medevac was enacted, 12 people died in Australia’s care in offshore processing. Since medevac, there have been no deaths.

Before medevac, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s human rights law and detention rights advocacy programs fought tooth and nail in the courts – alongside sector partners and incredible pro bono legal support – to urgently evacuate people for medical treatment. Precious hours and days were wasted, and the mental and physical health of refugees in a critical condition deteriorated while we were fighting to make the government follow a doctor’s orders. The fear that someone would die was real.

History has taught us that reason, facts and rationality are not enough in Australian politics.

Campaigning 101 teaches us that to change a policy, you must first change public attitudes. Only that can change the politics, which will change the policy. But, somehow, that logic and theory of change does not apply to asylum or refugee policy in Australia.

The latest polling shows most Australians support medevac as it stands, or want it to be even more humane. This week’s Scanlon Foundation research found that more than 70 per cent of young people think our treatment of people seeking asylum is too harsh. Surely a tipping point has been reached.

But not so. The government won’t budge; in fact, it seems determined to continue and deepen its hardline position of deterrence and punishment.

This position forces an entire rethink of how to achieve change. Refugee advocates have brought the public on the journey, we’ve brought politicians on a journey, but even when we win significant law reform, such as medevac, it’s nebulous.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the great divide that now exists between community attitudes and the government’s position on medevac, and how we got here. And what we must do to narrow that divide.

It’s well documented that Tampa and “children overboard” were strong influences in the minds of voters during the 2001 election campaign, seen as a pivotal point in shaping attitudes towards people seeking asylum by boat.

Since that time, there have been constant attacks on the Migration Act, steadfastly led by successive Coalition governments. Fear-based campaigning has become a powerful weapon in winning votes, and elections.

Lobbying for a humane asylum policy during the past 18 years has been tough. There were some hard, lonely visits to Canberra. It felt at times an impossible task to find political friends who would champion a fair and decent refugee and asylum policy. Time and time again, the message was clear – change the hearts and minds of voters and you’ll change the politics and policy.

Many in the refugee sector have focused on the public’s attitude. In 2016, we invested in research to identify the most persuasive language to talk about refugees and people seeking asylum. There has been a concerted effort to ensure the voices of those impacted by the policy, those seeking asylum, are front and centre of lobbying and policy prioritisation – and the way we talk about people seeking protection has changed as a result.

Shifts in attitude flowed from this, as witnessed during the Let Them Stay, Kids Off Nauru and medevac campaigns. Thursday’s cross-party press conference – with the Greens, Labor Party and independents standing shoulder to shoulder to save medevac – is hopeful proof that the politics has started to shift, too. Showing compassion for refugees and people seeking asylum is no longer the electoral suicide it was once feared to be.

But it’s still not enough. Well, that’s what the government wants us to believe.

All eyes are now on Jacqui Lambie. However, we mustn’t forget that it’s Peter Dutton who is in control of the lives of the 500 or so men and women remaining on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.

He has the power to decide people’s fate, their freedom and future. He continues to ignore the will of the public, ignores calls to act humanely and fairly. And for what reason? For politics. For fear.

Senator Lambie is facing one of the toughest political decisions of her life; the government is trying to sway and mislead her at every turn with distortions and lies.

They hope to distract her from the fact that medevac is simply about values, the right of sick people to be seen by a doctor, and that medical professionals not politicians should determine what treatment and care people need.

As Michelle Grattan so eloquently put it last week: “The government’s determination on this is driven by its desire to look tough (and reverse the humiliation the passage of medevac inflicted on it) rather than by need.”

So that’s it. Saving face is more important than saving lives. The lives of people in our care, people who sought protection on our shores.

That’s why it’s vital we continue to stand strong and fight for medevac. We don’t need to stop campaigning because the government isn’t following the logic of change theories upon which advocates have long relied. We need to redouble our efforts. Continue to call offices, sign petitions, talk to our neighbours and family as to the importance of treating people fairly and decently.

Without hope and action, the government wins and people will remain in limbo. They are trying to wear us down. Make no mistake, their strategy is intentional. They see the changing tide and they will try every tactic to divide us. To use fear to save their political egos. To make us think the community doesn’t care about refugees.

We see you, Peter Dutton. We see you, Scott Morrison. And we see the kind of country you are trying to manipulate us into being. But we are better than that, as are many of our elected representatives. We are strong, fair, humane and we believe people should be treated decently. Fighting to save medevac is part of this.

One would hope that it is our leaders taking charge and motivating us to become the best we can be as a society. Showing bravery and standing up for what is decent, compassionate, fair. Instead we have a government incapable of the type of political leadership that defines nations and is remembered fondly in history. Now, more than ever, the community must stand up and lead. It must force the government to abandon its cruel, fear-based agenda.

Peter Dutton may be willing to sell the soul of the nation for political pointscoring, but there are millions of caring people who aren’t. We can’t let the government continue to ignore the changing tide of public opinion. And we will be in Canberra to remind the minister of this – for as long as it takes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Shifting the politics".

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Jana Favero is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s director of advocacy and campaigns.

Kon Karapanagiotidis

is the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

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