Peter Dutton has been slammed for claiming Australians will be “kicked off” hospital waiting lists so asylum seekers transferred from Nauru and Manus Island can receive medical treatment.
Yesterday the Home Affairs Minister told Australians they “should be angry” about the prospect of missing out on medical services.
“It’s going to mean that people who need medical services in Australia are going to be displaced from those services. Because if you bring hundreds and hundreds of people from Nauru and Manus down to our country, they are going to go into the health network,” Mr Dutton said.
“I don’t want to see Australians who are in waiting lines in public hospitals kicked off those waiting lines because people off Nauru and Manus are now going to access those health services.
“If under Bill Shorten’s law we’re seeing people at hospitals miss out on medical services because people are taking it from Nauru and Manus, Australians will be angry about that.
“We have already provided significant medical assistance to people on Nauru and Manus. Anyone that tells you the people on Manus and Nauru haven’t been provided with the best medical assistance possible is lying to you.”
But will Australians actually face delayed medical treatment because of the law?
Independent MP Kerryn Phelps, who led the push for medical transfers in parliament, told news.com.au Mr Dutton’s claims were “utterly absurd”.
“Anybody who knows anything about the health system knows that we do have the capacity to deal with the expected numbers,” Dr Phelps said.
“In terms of urgent cases we believe it’s about 70 people, and in due course there may be several hundred, but not immediately.
“If the health system can’t handle an extra 70 cases, which I don’t believe for a minute, it would be the fault of Peter Dutton, who was health minister for the 2014 budget.”
St Vincent’s Health, Australia’s largest Catholic non-profit health organisation, has publicly backed up that assessment and rebuked Mr Dutton.
“This is a baseless claim. Public hospitals can accommodate the health needs of asylum seekers without disadvantaging anyone,” it said today.
“St Vincent’s is happy to make its hospitals available to provide care to asylum seekers without affecting waiting lists.”
According to the most recent Hospitals Report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there were 701 public hospitals in 2015-16.
Those hospitals had 61,000 beds, adding to the 33,100 in the nation’s 630 private hospitals.
In any case, the government has indicated it will send asylum seekers who are transferred off Nauru and Manus to Christmas Island — not the mainland.
That conflicts with the message that asylum seekers will clog up the Australian hospital system.
“How can the government make such a big deal out of sending people to Christmas Island, and then say everyone’s coming here?” Dr Phelps said.
She said the medical facilities on Christmas Island would be insufficient for a number of the potential patients, and the government’s decision to reopen the centre there was a “kneejerk reaction” to the medevac bill which showed “enormous ignorance”.
“We have information from the administrators of on Christmas Island saying they don’t have certain facilities,” Dr Phelps said.
She cited the reports of doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres revealing the disturbing extent of some detainees’ mental health problems.
“They said that the mental health condition of many of these people is very similar to the victims of torture and trauma, and those people would require expert ongoing care,” she said.
“Serious mental health conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder need continuity of care, and they also need cultural and language competence.”
She said that simply was not possible with Christmas Island’s current facilities.
Mr Dutton has also claimed Australians in public housing, or on the waiting list, could be disadvantaged because of the medevac legislation.
“People should be very angry, because this comes at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. If you’re accommodating people off Nauru and Manus in hotels in Melbourne, or Sydney, or Brisbane, it comes at a significant cost,” he said.
“I don’t want to see Australians who are on waiting lists for housing or already occupying housing being kicked out of that housing.
“This is a con, and Bill Shorten is facilitating the con.”
Dr Phelps said that claim “does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny”, as the transfers were meant to be temporary and asylum seekers would not be resettled in Australia.
The government believes there is a loophole in the legislation which could prevent it from sending asylum seekers back to Nauru and Manus Island.
Parliament passed the legislation in question weeks ago, but it was only sent to the Governor-General for royal assent today.
That means it has only just become an actual, operating law, and no asylum seekers have been transferred under its new rules yet.
“The delay is, I think, quite deliberate. It goes along with a pattern of behaviour of this government of delaying medical treatment for sick people,” Dr Phelps said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Townsville there was nothing unusual about the delay, and the medevac bill was being treated the same way as every other piece of legislation passed during the most recent sitting weeks.
Earlier, Mr Morrison told ABC radio Mr Dutton’s claims about the hospital system were just “simple maths”.
Labor leader Bill Shorten wasn’t buying it.
“I’ll tell you the mathematics which this government has got wrong — it’s our health care system,” Mr Shorten said.
He said the real problem with the hospital system was funding cuts, and called Mr Dutton’s argument “lies and nonsense”.
“When I watch Mr Dutton complain, it reminds me why Peter Dutton is the most unpopular politician in Australia,” he said.
Amid all of this back-and-forth, a number of national organisations have today banded together to form a Medical Evacuation Response Group, independent of the government, to oversee the “timely and orderly assessment” of applications for medical transfers under the new rules.
The organisations involved are the Refugee Council of Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Human Rights Law Centre, Refugee Legal, the National Justice Project, the Asylum Seekers Centre, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service and Amnesty International Australia.
“In the past, medical requests for transfer have been diluted by bureaucratic obstruction and political agenda,” one of the group’s representatives, Dr Sara Townend, said.
“It’s important that there is an equitable system with medical need as its focus. Doctors are best placed to assess the nature of health needs for patients.”