Labor stands firm on 'humane treatment' of sick refugees under Coalition pressure

Bill Shorten rejects claims that Labor's support for changes to the so-called medevac bill will encourage increased people smuggling activity.

Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten speaks to the media during a doorstop interview after attending the International Women's Day breakfast at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, February 14, 2019. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says it's possible to have strong borders and humane treatment of asylum seekers. Source: AAP

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says he believes the majority of Australians support a more humane approach to sick asylum seekers, as the Coalition continues to warn of a possible surge in people smuggling.

"I think this country, in 2019, is not the same nation as 2001," Shorten told reporters on Thursday. 

He was referring to the so-called Tampa affair in 2001 when then prime minister John Howard refused entry to a boat carrying asylum seekers and used the situation as a potent political weapon.  


The Coalition insists Labor has sent a message to people smugglers to restart their trade by supporting legislation - the so-called medevac bill - to make it easier for sick asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

Shorten said the government's tactics would not work this time. 

"I do not believe that Australians want a government that governs by slogans and fear," Shorten said.  

The government has advice from security and intelligence chiefs that the amendments, which it opposed, could send a signal to people smugglers that Australia's border security policies are being relaxed.

Strong borders and humane treatment

Shorten says the fact that it only applies to those on Manus and Nauru, and not any new arrivals, means the law changes won't send the wrong signal.

But the government says criminals are already using the law changes in their marketing.

"I don't want defence platforms in northern Australia fishing people out of the water again - who are dead - because of Labor reopening the boats," Defence Minister Christopher Pyne told ABC radio on Thursday.

The Labor leader is banking on Australian voters' wanting a more compassionate approach to sick refugees. 

"Strong borders does not need to come at the price of humane treatment of people who've been in our care for half a decade or more." 

'Dangerous' refugees to go to Christmas Island

As part of the response, the government will quickly reopen the Christmas Island facility which was mothballed in October 2018.

Mr Pyne said it was possible medical transferees could end up on Christmas Island because "some of them are very dangerous".

Christmas Island's local council warned its small regional hospital is not set up to handle asylum seekers with complex medical needs, if people are transferred to it.

Local council chief executive David Price said the hospital was so small it made more sense to send sick asylum seekers straight to the mainland.

Operation Sovereign Borders and other parts of the government's border security operations will be beefed up, with more than $1.4 billion earmarked to be spent over four years.

But no details have been publicly released about what specific steps will be taken.

Under the new laws, the home affairs minister can reject medical transfers if the person poses a threat to the Australian community.

Additional reporting: AAP

3 min read
Published 14 February 2019 at 3:34am
By Rosemary Bolger