Peter Khalil: I second the amendment. I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 and to oppose the repeal. This bill is a repeal bill. This bill seeks to repeal the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act 2019, what we call the medevac law. The 45th Parliament passed this in February. The law is working. The law allows sick people in Australia’s care to get medical treatment. It is that simple.
What has happened since it became law in February? Approximately 96 people, as of today, have been approved under this new law and around 40 people have come to Australia under the new law. Eighty per cent went through the ministerial sign off—they were signed off by the minister—and the rest had approval of the government-appointed medical panel. It is working. From what I have been told, the medical panel looked at 21 and in around 13 instances the panel supported the minister’s position and in eight instances it opposed the minister’s position.
The Leader of the Opposition pointed out today the fact that prior to the medevac law being passed the government actually transferred around 900 people to Australia because they were sick. So the government was transferring people anyway. The difference was that the government was doing everything it could in the judiciary to fight against the transfer requests. They fought them in the courts, every single case. That’s what they did—over 900 transfers, and they fought nearly every single one. The member for Dickson claimed that 1,000 people would flood Australia under this law. Well, that hasn’t happened. Clearly he’s not Nostradamus, is he, because that didn’t happen.
Around 40 people have actually come under this law—as I said, 80 per cent with ministerial sign-off by your own minister, and the rest through recommendations through that government-appointed medical panel. The people who have come under this medevac law have all been approved by government ministers or the ministerial-appointed doctors. Look, it’s pretty simple: it looks like this government is confirming that it wants to continue its third term of government as it began its first term—playing politics with people’s lives. The government wants to cruelly deny sick people medical treatment. That’s what this bill is about. That’s what this repeal is about: denying sick people medical care. When you boil it down, that’s what it comes down to. I can’t understand why they wish to do this. Is it because they are stubborn? Is it because the bill was passed by a combination of the opposition numbers and the crossbenchers?
Basically they’re denying sick people medical care. Is that in Australia’s best interests? Is it in our national interest? It seems to me that fear has been the most prominent element of the debate around this issue, particularly since the Tampa crisis two decades ago. Fear has ruled. Fear is a political weapon—fear of resisting, fear of even the imagining of being able to do something different, to find a different way forward. We as a nation have been trapped by this issue that has become so politically fraught that it’s next to impossible to actually have a conversation with anyone about how we might move forward. From the far Right, and from the far Left, all we hear is people shouting at each other. This latest iteration of this fraught issue—this attempt to repeal the medevac law—is just another tactic that fits into this ongoing fear that has paralysed us. It is an attempt to demonise refugees and people seeking asylum.
My parents fled war in Egypt 50 years ago to come to this country. The state of this debate has deeply saddened me for the past two decades particularly, because I know—and I know many other Australians know—the abiding desire we have for peace and security in a nation like Australia. That’s why my parents came here. That’s why they fled where they were from, to come here and to start a new life—one that was secure for them and their children and would give them a chance. That’s why I have worked on these issues. That’s why I’ve been passionate about them. I spent most of my career in national security. I have committed myself to protecting Australians and our interests. But I’ve also spent that time trying to cut through, hopefully, that paralysing fear that has been part of this debate, even going as far as trying to make representations at the UN and UNGA back in 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, with people I knew, who I’d worked with, in the Obama administration around safely transporting refugees to Europe.
Even in my first speech in this place I spent much of the first speech talking about how I believe that Australia has a moral, an ethical and a legal obligation to care for those refugees who have been physically, emotionally and mentally harmed by the conditions of detention they have experienced. Rather than just talk about it, we work towards that, in so many different ways. The policies that we worked on in opposition and that we put to the Australian people at the last election were part of that.
I remember that in early 2017 the government then led by Malcolm Turnbull tried to pass the so-called lifetime ban bill. That would have meant a ludicrous lifetime ban on refugees from Manus and Nauru ever coming to Australia. It was really a smokescreen for the abject failure of the Turnbull government at that point in time, which for over three years had failed to find resettlement arrangements for the refugees languishing on Manus and Nauru. It was so ridiculous to have a potential scenario where a refugee could make it to New Zealand, maybe become a minister in the New Zealand government within 10 years and then want to visit Australia—Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited us just last week—but, sorry, if that law had passed, they wouldn’t have been able to come into the country. That’s how preposterous it was. We got to a point in this country where the government were putting up bills that would have had that kind of effect so that they could feed that fear. Maybe it was beneficial for them politically to keep feeding that, but it’s ridiculous. It makes no-one safer. It doesn’t add to our national security. It diminishes us as a people, because we have a duty of care for those people. It’s not just about international law; it’s not just about domestic law. It’s about doing what’s right and decent, as one human being to another.
We opposed that, quite rightly, as an opposition. I came out and said it was ridiculous. And yet we’re still here. We’re still here tonight debating the same kinds of attempts by this government to stoke that fear. I’ve got to say how disgusted I was, when we passed the medevac law back in February, that MP and senator after MP and senator on the government side went out and said: ‘In passing the medevac law, Labor has just allowed murderers, rapists and paedophiles to come into Australia.’ That’s what they were saying on the news, in their interviews in the press and on the radio. It was absolutely disgraceful. It was one of the lowest points in my time here, witnessing that.
And, just to top things off, you will all recall Hakeem Al-Araibi, the young fellow who plays football for Pascoe Vale Football Club in my electorate and who lives in the electorate of the member who preceded me in this debate. He was here for an exhibition game, because we got him out of Thailand and that issue that he was facing. He’s a refugee. And some of same MPs who were in the media talking about us letting in rapists, murderers and paedophiles came down to have a kick with him and take a selfie with him. It was absolute hypocrisy. Together with Fos, Craig Foster, a friend of mine from my SBS days, we’d worked so hard to get Hakeem out of the situation he was in. But we had all these Liberal and National Party MPs and senators coming down to get their selfie with Hakeem, because it was the news of the day. All credit to Marise Payne—she made a good effort, as foreign minister, to get him out. But the hypocrisy of my colleagues on the other side, on the government benches, who came out to take their picture with him while, at the same time that morning, saying that we—Labor and the crossbenchers who’d passed the medevac law—were allowing murderers, rapists and paedophiles into the country was absolutely disgraceful and it saddened me to the core.
We worked on policies, as a party, in the previous parliament. I was working with colleagues such as Ged Kearney, the member for what is now Cooper, and many others on a whole range of policies as part of the immigration working group. We took good policies to the last election. We made a commitment to end indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru. We made a commitment to double the refugee intake. We made a commitment to a new community sponsored refugee program that would increase the number by another 5,000. I moved that motion at our party conference and was very proud to do so. We made a commitment of a $500 million investment into the UNHCR, to work with them on regional frameworks and regional solutions to help alleviate the issues facing the 25 million refugees registered by the UNHCR globally. We put forward an independent children’s advocate and a 90-day processing rule. We put forward a policy to end TPVs and SHEVs to make sure that if you are found to be a genuine refugee you are given that status.
These political battles—the debate we’re having right now on the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019—are all playing out within a prism of fear that has trapped our politics for decades, and this government has shown no real leadership on this front. They continue an approach that is based on cruelty, and they are intent not only on allowing the status quo to go on and on and on indefinitely but even on reversing what little gains can be made by this parliament. But there is another way. We don’t need to be trapped by fear. As a country, we can move past this. The medevac law was, and is, a first step in that new direction—in moving forward without fear. History has shown us the way forward. There are signposts to guide us out of this minefield.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when Australia welcomed refugees from South-East Asia, the vast majority came by plane after having their claims processed through regional agreements. I know it is possible to have a humane approach to people seeking asylum and to refugees. I know it’s possible to end the division and the fear. I know it’s possible to avoid having people being exploited by people smugglers. And all these goals are not mutually exclusive. I know that even beyond these goals Australia can be a global leader in response to the global refugee crisis. We just need that coordinated international effort, and we need to play a part in leading that effort. We can forge a better way forward.
And why? Well, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s our role to help end and alleviate suffering for millions, and to do that good on the global stage is inherently good, as a public good. But it’s also because that by doing so we serve our own national interests—those national interests that are so important to us: to live in a region and a world that is safe and secure. If we want to live in that world, if we want that world, we must move beyond this toxic, fear based debate and step up and lead.
Lastly, I just want to say that there is no reason for the government to continue on this chosen path of fear. There is another way. They say we passed the medevac law here because we wanted to defeat the government. How cynical. No: I say to those on the government side, we passed this law back in February because we wanted to provide medical care for people who needed it, for people who are in our duty of care. And when Australians look back on this time they’ll ask that question. Why are we having this debate now? And they will say that we should have been better than that. I believe that we are better than that and can be better than that.