The Urgent Medical Transfer Bill is aimed at giving doctors more power to transfer asylum seekers from offshore detention to Australia on medical grounds.
The bill passed the Lower House in historic circumstances overnight, as the Coalition became the first Federal Government to lose a vote on its own legislation in almost 80 years.
Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench supported the bill, which passed with 75 votes to 74.
A version of the Urgent Medical Transfer Bill passed the Senate last year, but last-minute legal advice presented to Parliament by Attorney-General Christian Porter cast doubt on its validity.
but independent MP and former Sydney GP Dr Kerryn Phelps has long pushing for further amendments that would limit the Home Affairs Minister’s ability to block transfers.
The Government has criticised the bill and several cabinet members, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have said it will compromise Australia’s border security, result in widespread arrivals, and embolden people smugglers.
However, in a historic Government defeat, the legislation has passed the House of Representatives over Prime Minister Morrison’s objections by a vote of 75 to 74.
GP and Chair of the RACGP Refugee Health Network Dr Kate Walker said opposition to the bill had the potential to put more lives at risk.
‘These asylum seekers must be able to receive the proper level of healthcare,’ she said.
‘Dr Phelps’ bill will help ensure those seeking asylum in Australia will be provided with the appropriate level of healthcare, as deemed by trained and qualified medical professionals.’
GP and refugee health advocate Dr Sara Townend told newsGP the bill simply aims to put medical decision-making back in the hands of doctors.
‘There is a lack of medical personnel involved in decision making. Most troublingly, the Government clearly states that Australia is to be used as a destination only in extreme circumstances,’ she said.
‘In real patient terms, this might mean a suspected cancer remains undiagnosed and untreated for several months, or a person might suffer hydronephrosis and renal failure from an obstructed kidney stone.
‘This is an unacceptable way to practise medicine. In Australia, we would just pick up the phone and request an urgent transfer – a doctor serving on Nauru or Manus should have the same ability without having their recommendation refused.’
Officials on Nauru and Manus Island currently need to navigate separate, multi-stepped processes to arrange a patient transfer to Australia, a process Dr Townend said lacks transparency and sufficient input from doctors.
‘There are several problems with this system. It is common for a request for transfer to be stalled in the above process for months, or even years,’ she said.
‘The [Urgent Medical Transfer] bill has three elements. Two doctors must independently assess, either in person or remotely, the patient and recommend transfer. The request is then sent directly to the Minister [of Home Affairs].
‘If the Minister disagrees, for any reason, this is sent to a government-appointed 10-member independent panel, which will contain six doctors. If the panel recommends transfer, then the government can only refuse on security grounds.’
GP Dr Sara Townend has led an online campaign to generate support for both the bill and its passage through parliament, which was backed by more than 6000 doctors.
The amended bill initially drew support from the Greens and Labor, but opposition leader Bill Shorten has since negotiated a compromised version that includes stronger powers to reject applicants with criminal histories.
Mr Shorten’s shift follows reports on a leaked classified briefing from the Department of Home Affairs, purportedly based on advice from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Australian Border Force, which suggests Dr Phelps’ bill will result in the arrival of up to 1000 asylum seekers ‘within weeks’ of it being passed.
Prime Minister Morrison has branded Labor as ‘soft’ in relation to cancelling the visas of criminals, and accused the party of needing to be ‘dragged’ to support national security legislation.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne also argued that the bill will result in ‘almost all’ of the approximately 1000 asylum seekers in offshore detention being transferred to the mainland.
However, he did not say whether this meant the detainees were all currently ill enough to warrant two doctors signing off on a medical transfer.
In the lead up to the vote, Dr Phelps urged Labor and her fellow crossbench MPs to continue supporting the legislation and said the Government was resorting to ‘scare tactics and deliberate misinformation’ to block its passage.
‘Medical decisions on urgent temporary medical transfers from Manus Island and Nauru need to be made by doctors and not bureaucrats,’ she said.
‘Bureaucrats have a demonstrated history of obstructing and delaying medical treatment.’
According to The Guardian, data from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has shown patients on Nauru and Manus Island can often wait years for medical transfers recommended by doctors from the Government’s contracted health provider, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS).
Six people are said to have waited more than four years for a transfer, while two men under 40 – one with chronic migraines and epilepsy, and the other an anterior cruciate ligament injury, arthritis and mental health issues – had medical transfer requests submitted over five years ago.
Other medical groups, including Doctors for Refugees and Médecins Sans Frontières, who recently launched telehealth services on Nauru after being ordered off the island last year, have also criticised the Australian Government’s approach to asylum seeker healthcare.