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Repealing medivac

Jul 4, 2019 • 14m23s

As the government pushes to repeal the medivac legislation, lawyers and doctors contradict the arguments put against it.

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Repealing medivac

28 • Jul 4, 2019

Repealing medivac

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As the government pushes to repeal the medivac legislation, lawyers and doctors contradict the arguments put against it. Martin McKenzie-Murray details the desperate situation of families the bill could have helped.

[Theme ends]

A warning: This episode contains discussion of suicide.

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“This is a stupid bill. It's written by people who haven't got the faintest idea how this works. We do. It is a big question of character though.”

Archival tape — Peter Dutton:

“People of bad character can come, are able to come, and in fact are required to come under Labor's laws that they passed. That's the reality.”

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“When it comes to character issues on our Migration Act, we can reject people now there's nothing to stop, in that case someone who is a pedophile, who's a rapist, who's committed murder, any of these other crimes can just be moved on the say so of a couple of doctors.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Marty you've been working on the realities of the medivac legislation, you've written on it recently, and on the rhetoric around it and the people who are affected by it. Can we start by telling the story of one family who would have been helped by the legislation?

MARTIN:

So there's one family detailed in federal court documents. There was a decision made in September and it tells the story, a very grim story, of an Iranian family: mother, two sons and her daughter in law.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the Chief Correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

MARTIN:

So one son was an adult when they made the journey over. The other son was a boy, was about 9 years old. So in the waters to the north of Australia they intercepted by Australian authorities in 2013, and then transferred to Christmas Island, where they’re processed briefly and then taken to Nauru in January 2014. This family has come from Iran. There's documented trauma that has affected all of them.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Can you tell me more about the eldest son in this family ?

MARTIN:

The eldest son had reportedly been detained by Iranian authorities and likely tortured. He was withdrawn and depressed. His family were very concerned about him.

Then come 2018 the eldest son kills himself. His wife finds him. He was 26.

ELIZABETH:

This of course sends the family into a tailspin.

MARTIN:

Yeah it does. The reports describe this really swift mental disintegration of the surviving family members: the mother, the daughter in law, and the youngest son. All of them are suicidal, all of them make attempts on their life. The mother tries to take her life numerous times, the youngest son who's 12 at the time of his brother's death, witnesses these attempts.

[Music ends]

MARTIN:

Psychologists, and there's numerous ones, all make the same decision which is that each of them requires immediate entry to psychiatric facility not provided on Nauru and so requiring their emergency transfer to Australia. The solicitor then writes to the government and saying there's a good chance that one or more of them will die if they don't receive that treatment.

ELIZABETH:

How does the government respond to the appeals the solicitor is making on behalf of the remaining family members, so the mother the younger son and the daughter in law?

MARTIN:

They don't. They don't respond at all.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

OK, so what happens next?

MARTIN:

Well you have a very frustrated solicitor who's acting on behalf of this family, that's in crisis. The solicitor makes an appeal to the Australian Government, including these psychological and psychiatric notes compiled over years. Multiple medical practitioners, saying this is what we need urgent medical transfer. Silence. A second letter is written. Underscoring the urgency of this and saying that there is a chance that one of them might die.

ELIZABETH:

People's lives are at stake.

MARTIN:

Yeah.

ELIZABETH:

Three.

MARTIN:

Completely unambiguously.

And here's the documentation here's the evidence. Again no reply. So then the lawyer makes an appeal to the federal court asking for an injunction and saying that you know we argue that the Federal Court needs to intervene here and oblige the Australian Government to transfer these people.

ELIZABETH:

When does that happen?

MARTIN:

That happens in September last year. And like all such cases, and there are many more of them, it passes. The judgment goes in the applicant's favour and the Australian Government is obliged to transfer these people.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

So Marty this judgment relating to this Iranian family you've just described happens in September of 2018. But the medivac bill doesn't become law until February of this year. Briefly, what is the medivac law, and could it have helped this family, had it been in effect earlier?

MARTIN:

Yes. The medivac law was written for cases specifically like this where there's an emergency, a medical emergency, and the government have routinely delayed or ignored that treatment. So yes, the medivac law would likely, almost certainly, have helped in this instance. The essence is to empower or enhance the doctor's recommendations to ensure that they're not ignored or overlooked.

ELIZABETH:

So the government is now pushing to repeal the medivac Bill. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton opposes legislation. What are his criticisms of the law?

MARTIN:

They've made a variety of arguments, they said during the campaign that they would repeal it. The passage of the legislation was quite embarrassing for them. It was historic in that a government lost a vote. So the arguments the government have made against medivac have been various.

[Music starts]

MARTIN:

One was it would allow dangerous people to settle in Australia. Again, pretty easy to dismiss given the ministerial discretionary power there. And this is for the transfer of people for temporary medical treatment. It's not for their permanent settlement, when safe to do so they would be returned to Papua New Guinea or Nauru.

ELIZABETH:

So this isn’t permanent resettlement in Australia,

MARTIN:

No

ELIZABETH:

This is temporary medical treatment..

MARTIN:

Effectively they're still in custody.

Another argument that was made is that hospitals might be flooded or overwhelmed by these people making medical transfers, denying hospital beds to Australians. Again this is a rather hyperbolic claim. 31 people have used the medivac legislation in four months. Ah… 900 people since the resumption of offshore processing in 2013 have been transferred for medical reasons. That's nine hundred over seven years. So it would be a very brittle public health care system that was troubled or overwhelmed by those numbers.

Hospitals came out and said as much as well. St. Vincent's Health Australia tweeted that these claims were baseless.

Another argument was that the medivac law would revive the passage of boats. Well we have four months to look at this now and maybe that's not sufficient time. But there hasn't been a resumption of boats.

And then the most recent argument came from Peter Dutton who said that he was aware of at least one case of a woman confecting a sexual assault claim or a rape claim wishing for an abortion which are outlawed on Nauru.

Archival tape — Peter Dutton:

There are people who claimed that they'd been raped and came to Australia to seek an abortion because they couldn't get an abortion on Nauru...

MARTIN:

And once arriving in Australia deciding that she in fact did not want an abortion...

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

They arrived in Australia and then decided that they were not going to have an abortion. They have the baby here. The moment they step off the plane their lawyers lodge papers in the Federal Court which injuncts us from sending them back.

MARTIN:

So on Dutton's claims no one I spoke to could refute that specific case.

ELIZABETH:

But nor could they confirm the details of it.

MARTIN:

No. We have to take Dutton's word for it.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

[Music ends]

MARTIN:

I guess I'd make the point that whilst a lot of people might find it repellent if people are desperate enough to swallow washing powder, swallow nail clippers, barbed wire, desperate enough to set themselves on fire, desperate enough to take dangerous boats across the ocean, they might be desperate enough to, sure, confect the story in order to get to Australia.

ELIZABETH:

You spoke to a doctor who had spent time working on Nauru. What was his response to Dutton's claim that there are women confecting sexual assault cases, and then their requests for abortion and then retractions of those requests for an abortion?

MARTIN:

It was Dr. Nick Martin who was a senior medic for IHMS, the International Health and Medical Services, and they're contracted to provide healthcare in the Nauruan camps. Until he became a whistleblower. Dr Martin said he was repulsed by that. And he made the point that part of the Australian Government's delay in processing people's medical transfers includes women requiring abortions. He says normally it's a procedure that you would do around eight to twelve weeks, and if done in that window it's a relatively straightforward and safe procedure. But in the case of women on Nauru being transferred to Australia, he says the delay is such that they're coming at 20 weeks, even 21 or 22 weeks.

ELIZABETH:

So much later in that pregnancy.

MARTIN:

Much, much later and so greatly increasing the danger of that procedure. So he says that's the scandal: that women making claims for transfer for abortions are being delayed so greatly by the government that it's increasing the chances of harm.

ELIZABETH:

Marty, what do you think is likely to happen to the medivac legislation now, I mean you mentioned that the government of course talked about it during the campaign is something they're like to repeal, what does it look like the fate of the bill will be?

MARTIN:

Well, it's, it's not great. I mean it's very difficult for me to affect neutrality on this. It's to me what should be a really uncontroversial bill. It preserves offshore processing. It preserves boat tow backs. It preserves ministerial discretion. It applies to very small number of people, and an incredibly fragile and vulnerable group of people. It should really be quite uncontroversial.

ELIZABETH:

And why is the government fighting this so vehemently do you think, given that it's probably disproportionate to the actual scale of the legislation that we're talking about?

MARTIN:

Well you've got the professed reasons which I went through before, but each one has seemed quite spurious and certainly hyperbolic. So then you turn to the unspoken reasons. Well one: national security and particularly border security has been something that they have consistently bashed the Opposition over. And for a very, very, very long time in this country, political credibility has been tied, quite profoundly, probably disproportionately to border security. And I think in this instance what should be and what is a small and uncontroversial bill is lashed to ideas of political credibility.

ELIZABETH:

Marty do we know what happened to the Iranian family that you spoke about.

MARTIN:

They were transferred to Australia. The recommendation was that they be together.

[Music starts]

MARTIN:

That was important. They entered psychiatric facility. That's all I know. I'm not sure of their well-being currently.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you so much Marty.

MARTIN:

Thank you.

ELIZABETH:

If this episode caused distress, support is available. You can reach Lifeline counsellors by calling 13 11 14.

[Music ends]

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[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Woolworths has announced that it plans to merge the alcohol and gambling arms of its business, which it will then sell off or make available through an initial public offering next year. The company owns one of the largest pokies businesses in the country, with a holding of 12,000 machines. Woolworths has faced public pressure to divest from the gambling sector after Coles gave up control of 3,000 machines earlier this year in a $200 million deal.

And in the US, Tesla has produced more electric cars in the second quarter than any other quarter since its founding. More than 95,000 vehicles were delivered worldwide from April through June. However, the company is yet to prove that it can consistently turn a profit and will need to increase its production in the second half of the year to meet targets set by its founder, Elon Musk.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Music ends]

As the government pushes to repeal the medivac legislation, lawyers and doctors contradict the arguments put against it. Martin McKenzie-Murray details the desperate situation of families the bill could have helped.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background reading:

No truth behind Dutton’s medivac rhetoric in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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28: Repealing medivac