'It's theatre': Refugee advocates say $185m wasted on reopening Christmas Island

The Christmas Island detention centre would close by July if Morrison's government is re-elected, just months after Scott Morrison warned it was necessary to deal with a flood of sick refugees.

Scott Morrison tours the North West Point Detention Center on Christmas Island

Scott Morrison tours the North West Point Detention Center on Christmas Island. Source: AAP

Refugee advocates have accused the government of wasting $185 million to reopen Christmas Island detention centre to make a political point, after the budget revealed the government would close the centre by July if re-elected. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the reopening of the detention centre on Christmas Island after the passage of the medevac legislation in February, blaming concerns that hundreds of asylum seekers would seek to use the laws to come to Australia.  


Mr Morrison put the cost of reopening and running the centre at $1.4 billion, but the budget reveals the government intends to repeal the medevac legislation and close the centre for a second time by July.  

The budget papers detail that $178.9 million has been allocated to manage the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to Christmas Island for medical treatment in the meantime. 

Another $8 million has been set aside for the independent health advice panel to oversee the recommendations. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison poses for photographs on the Christmas Island jetty last month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Christmas Island in March warning that the Opposition has given a green light to people smugglers. Source: AAP

But the centre remains empty with no one from Manus Island or Nauru being transferred to the re-opened centre under the new legislation as of yet. 

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said it had been a costly unnecessary exercise.

“The reopening of the Christmas Island was never needed to bring sick people to Australia for treatment but yet again we see the government wasting money on political posturing while critical needs in the community go unmet,” Mr Power said. 

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the lack of medical transfer applications was a sign the decision to reopen Christmas Island had worked as a deterrent. 

"The fact that the government made a decision on advice to transfer any such asylum seekers to Christmas Island has perhaps reduced the level of enthusiasm to take advantage of that bill that Bill Shorten passed through the Parliament," Senator Cormann told ABC on Wednesday.

"That is of course the precise purpose we made the decision to reopen Christmas Island."

In March, the Prime Minister flew to Christmas Island to give media a tour of the facility with medical and security staff flown in in preparation for the feared influx of asylum seekers.

At the time, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten estimated that "photo opportunity" cost $2000 a minute. 

Newly-elected Independent MP Kerryn Phelps initiated the medevac legislation to give doctors more say in transferring asylum seekers in offshore detention to mainland Australia for treatment. 

She said the government's announcement confirmed it never intended to send sick refugees to Christmas Island. 

"It was theatre, window dressing, PR, desperation, obfuscation," Dr Phelps tweeted. 

Labor's shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann said the planned closure was proof Scott Morrison was running a desperate scare campaign. 

"Scott Morrison blatantly lied about the cost of Christmas Island when he said it would cots $1.4 billion and has wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars on his unhinged stunt," Mr Neumann said.  

Greens Leader Richard Di Natale said the decision to close the centre reflected the government's skewed priorities. 

"This government has spent more on the last four weeks on Christmas Island than it will spend over the next four years tackling climate change," Senator Di Natale said on Wednesday morning. 

At the same time it's believed more than 20 sick refugees and asylum seekers have been treated on mainland Australia under the previous transfer processes. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told SBS News on Tuesday night that the government had not wanted to reopen the centre, blaming Labor for supporting the medevac legislation. 

"They're the ones who have pushed this through, we're the ones that objected to it because we believe in having a strong rigorous border policy," Mr Frydenberg said. 

4 min read
Published 3 April 2019 at 12:47pm
By Rosemary Bolger