Australia is finally having a moral awakening on refugee policy

Australia is finally having a moral awakening on refugee policy

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

The government keeps playing politics with innocent people’s lives but the public mood has shifted.

Walking really slowly. Speaking really slowly. Asking for toilet breaks. These were just some of the primary school tactics the Morrison government used for hours in the Senate on the last parliamentary sitting day of the year. All to avoid giving basic medical care to sick refugees and suffering the humiliation of being the first government in 90 years to lose a vote on legislation in the House of Representatives.

Watching the absurdity unfold it would have been easy to forget that behind all the politics and self-preservation, people’s lives were actually on the line.

Just last week Médecins Sans Frontières warned that “Nauru is in the grip of a mental health crisis”. They reported that “the mental health suffering on Nauru is among the worst MSF has ever seen” and that one-third of their refugee patients on Nauru have now tried to kill themselves.

Caseworkers we work with are telling us that right now there are over 50 people on Nauru and Manus whose lives are at “imminent risk” due to severe health issues. Some are so psychologically crushed after five years of offshore detention that they have been unable to eat or drink for weeks.

The bill the government tried so hard to stall would ensure these people receive urgent, lifesaving medical care. If two independent doctors assess a person as needing treatment which they are not getting on Manus or Nauru, then the bill says they can be brought to Australia to receive the medical care that they need.

Any transfers would only be for that temporary medical purpose. The minister would retain a power of veto. And people brought here would still be subject to mandatory detention and return.

Scott Morrison has nevertheless tried to spin the bill as some sort of existential threat to national security. But the bill just ensures sick people get medical treatment and don’t die, and the only thing more appalling than the tactics Morrison used to delay it is the fact that legislation like this is even necessary in the first place.

In just the last three months the government has been forced to transfer 130 people after urgent legal cases have been filed or threatened. The cases include 45 children, some of whom doctors said were going to die within days.

Waiting until children are on their death bed and then forcing them into one of the highest courts in the country at all hours of the night is not a humane or responsible process. Medical treatment must be a clinical decision, not a political one, or people will die. And that’s why this bill is so vital.

In delaying its passage through the Senate to avoid the humiliation of defeat in the lower house, Morrison has endangered innocent people to save his own skin. In one sense throwing refugees under the bus in the name of politics is nothing new. But what was different about this moment is how completely and utterly desperate and ineffective it looked.

For years the government has assumed there was unending political capital in cruelty to refugees and has been on the front foot huffing and puffing about borders and boats at every opportunity. But last week the government was scrambling to avoid a vote on refugees. Senators dashed for the bathroom to buy time and government MPs fled the House of Representatives as soon as they could.

Suddenly, the government was trying to dodge the issue they’ve pushed for a generation.

The shift is because the nation is finally having a moral awakening on refugee policy. It’s been triggered by seeing the faces of kids on Nauru and hearing the dire warnings from doctors that a child will die unless something is done.

The evidence of this shift in sentiment is everywhere.

We see it in the Wentworth byelection, where there was an unprecedented swing against the government towards independent Kerryn Phelps after she made clear she would demand that all children and their families on Nauru be immediately evacuated to Australia.

We see it in former Liberal MP Julia Banks breaking ranks, joining the crossbench and urging her former party to stop playing politics with people’s lives.

And we see it in the resounding support for the urgent medical treatment bill from the Labor party, the Centre Alliance, the Greens and a coalition of independents led by Phelps and Banks with Tim Storer, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and Derryn Hinch.

After almost six years of unmitigated cruelty to innocent people, Australia is finally rediscovering its moral compass. There’s a palpable sense that this has all gone too far, for too long. People want change, and there is now a strong coalition of conscience in the parliament willing to act.

Morrison and his government tried to run from that reality last week, but the nation will not let them hide.

Daniel Webb is a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.