Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Playing hide and seek on medevac deal

Scott Morrison ended the parliamentary year with a win he so desperately needed. Gone in a cloud of bluff and bravado is the compassionate medevac law that gave doctors the major role in transferring sick refugees to Australia for treatment. The victory does nothing to enhance Australia’s humanitarian reputation or the government’s credibility.

The senate and the people of Australia were told by the Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie that she had put to the government a proposal “to work with me to secure my support” for the medevac repeal. And then it got very strange. Lambie’s was the crucial vote needed to repeal the law foisted on a reluctant Coalition government at the beginning of the year after it lost its parliamentary majority. She emotionally told the senate that she was not being “coy or silly” when she “genuinely” could not say what she proposed. “I know that’s frustrating to people,” she said, “and I get that.” But she said she was “100 per cent honest” with her “hand on her heart” that she couldn’t say anything else without putting Australia’s national security at risk.

Lambie told the senate that she knew journalists assume “everyone who refers to national security to keep something secret is a lying, cynical bum, and they’re probably right most of the time”. But she said she put her proposal and worked very hard with the government to get “an outcome I believe we both want”, which is to keep the borders secure, to have the boats stopped and to prevent sick people from dying while waiting for treatment. She said she was satisfied that, as a result of that hard work, the conditions now existed for her to allow medevac to be repealed.

So, if you believe Senator Lambie, she put forward a proposal, without which she would not give the government the numbers it needed, but that proposal had to remain a secret. If you believe the government, however, there was no deal, secret or otherwise. The prime minister, in the afterglow of a senate win – denied to him the week before on the union-busting bill – put it down to Lambie being won over by better understanding what the government’s policy is. Morrison said she had received extensive briefings “from very senior officials who are deeply involved in these matters”. He said the government is implementing its resettlement laws and they are its only policy on the matter.

However, the prime minister did not rule out New Zealand as a possibility once the resettlement deal with the United States had been completed. One refugee advocate is sure this was part of Lambie’s proposal. When Morrison was directly asked if New Zealand was an option, he replied, “The government’s policy is to ensure we seek to resettle people who are on Nauru.” He left the way open for future consideration by saying, “We’ve outlined the issues and the complexities and the difficulties of that arrangement [of resettling refugees in New Zealand] in the past.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton spuriously claimed the medevac laws were undermining the US resettlement agreement because it “allows people to come to Australia through a back door and takes away the incentive for them to accept a relocation to the United States”. It is spurious because the medevac law gave Dutton as minister extensive powers to refuse a transfer, and the doctors he appointed had the last say on the medical diagnosis.

Lambie has taken Morrison and Dutton at their word, including assurances given to her that the sort of delays for medical treatment that led to 12 deaths before medevac was introduced would not be repeated. In her tear-filled speech to the senate, Lambie cited the Queensland coroner’s finding in the case of one refugee who had presented to a nurse with the flu but “13 days later he was dead”. The coroner, she said, found the “death would have been completely preventable if we had done something more to help”. According to one source, however, part of the deal was Lambie had to do nothing that would signal to people smugglers that there was any “weakening” of the government’s hard line.

The tactics outraged Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance. Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong, said the government was treating the senate and the people of Australia with contempt for asking senators to repeal a law while keeping the basis for the repeal secret. The Greens’ Richard Di Natale told the chamber that the government’s senate leader, Mathias Cormann, walked over to Lambie in one of the divisions and said, “Is it okay if I say there’s no deal?” An angry Di Natale said, “We heard you say it. Who’s lying?” He said someone was misleading the senate on “one of the most important pieces of legislation that has been before the parliament”. He also said it is a basic human right to receive medical treatment when you’re sick.

There’s no doubt trusting Morrison and Dutton is a very big ask in light of Australia’s treatment of those sent to Nauru and Manus Island, especially after the government clamped down on medical transfers in 2015. According to an Essential poll, 62 per cent of Australians support the medevac law, while the latest findings from JWS Research in The Australian Financial Review show that border protection is no longer a top issue of concern, slipping well down the list. The explanation, no doubt, is the government’s success in stopping the boats thanks to Operation Sovereign Borders – a policy Labor says it supports and would have retained had it won government. But Morrison has returned to the rhetoric the Coalition has run against Labor since the confected Tampa crisis in 2001, when John Howard declared war on the Norwegian mercy ship and the 438 asylum seekers it had saved from drowning. Morrison bellowed outside Parliament House that “the biggest myth running around … in Australian politics over the last decade is that Labor supports the government’s border protection policies”.

The government’s lack of transparency with Lambie’s proposal is of a piece with its unwillingness to come clean on anything much. Since August, four freedom of information applications made to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet by the opposition leader’s office have been ignored. The 30-day limit for a reply, required by law, has also been ignored. The embattled Energy minister, Angus Taylor, has similarly blocked FOI attempts on any documents that could throw light on who was involved in the doctored document fiasco. Midweek, The Australian identified a staffer in Taylor’s office who obtained the false travel cost figures. The minister still insists, “I reject absolutely the suggestion that I, or any members of my staff, altered the document in question.” Taylor’s careful choice of words does nothing to reassure anyone, and only adds to what Anthony Albanese calls Morrison’s “Angus horribilis”.

This running from scrutiny is catching in the Coalition. Nationals MP George Christensen has blocked Nine Entertainment journalists from getting FOI access to an Australian Federal Police probe into his frequent travels to the Philippines over a four-year period. Nine’s papers and TV network revealed that AFP agents, while clearing Christensen of illegal activity, were so concerned the MP could be a target for blackmail that they briefed the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Albanese told Canberra Press Gallery journalists at his end-of-year drinks on Tuesday that transparency and accountability are essential to a functioning democracy. He said when he was a minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments he never once refused an FOI request, and that he has great sympathy with the media’s Right to Know campaign.

On Saturday the Labor leader will give the third of his vision statements in Sydney. Its theme is democracy. The speech will put Indigenous recognition as a priority for constitutional reform, and Albanese will lament the increasing polarisation of public debate and the role of social media in this.

Albanese told the revellers that 2020 would be a better year for Labor. He intends to put the election loss in the rear-view mirror and promises to hold the government to account. Labor MPs praise the way Albanese has clinically used parliamentary tactics to disconcert the government. In that he has been helped by Morrison’s missteps in his handling of the Taylor imbroglio, which by the end of the week had widened to embroil the attorney-general, Christian Porter. Porter admitted to being a witness to the prime minister’s call to New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller but refuses to concede it was unwise or improper.

Morrison, for his part, will be hoping his medevac win will reassure his troops he really does know how to get contentious bills through the parliament. But his heavy emphasis – at his last party room meeting – on the need for the government to stay united is an admission that not everything inside the bubble is going as well as he would like.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Hiding off into the sunset". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.