Fight over asylum seeker bill comes to Macquarie

The federal election battle over a crucial bill on asylum seekers has seen the Liberal Party’s Macquarie candidate Sarah Richards engage in a war of words with Labor MP Susan Templeman.

Ms Richards accused Labor of weakening Australia’s borders by supporting a bid by independent MP Kerryn Phelps to give doctors greaters powers to get refugees off Manus Island and Nauru.

Asylum seekers on Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie.

Asylum seekers on Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie.

“Labor’s support of this bill would render us powerless to effectively security check people applying for a transfer to the mainland for a medical assessment – those in detention could essentially shop around for a doctor to approve the move,” she said.  

“Labor’s actions would undoubtedly be exploited by criminals and people smugglers who would view the move as a serious weakening of our borders.” 

But Ms Templeman slammed the attack as a “desperate” attempt by the Liberals to deflect attention from their own internal problems.

“These amendments are about making sure sick and vulnerable people in regional processing facilities can receive the medical care they need, without compromising existing border protection arrangements,” she said.

“The Coalition is renowned for misrepresenting ALP policy on this issue, and it is nothing more than a desperate attempt to create a distraction from the fact they are in complete disarray.”

The Blue Mountains GP Network has backed Ms Templeman’s stance and called on federal MPs to support the bill.

“The current system on Manus and Nauru is not working. It is unacceptable that 12 refugees have died while in immigration detention on Manus Island and Nauru, including deaths as a result of inadequate medical or mental health care and delays in transfer,” said Hazelbrook GP, Dr Louise McDonnell.

“The proposed legislation puts the responsibility for health decisions in the hands of those best qualified to make them, our medical professionals.”

The GP Network also criticised the federal government for using vulnerable refugees for political reasons.

“The government is creating an imaginary threat by claiming that the legislation will create a security risk. The detainees have been found to be refugees and the bill will allow those needing medical care to access it. The government’s approach is cruel and has had fatal consequences,” said Dr Helen Balkin from Faulconbridge.

Ms Richards referred to a briefing note from the Department of Home Affairs, based on advice from ASIO and the Australian Border Force, in her press release issued on February 7.

This advice has since become the centre of controversy after extracts from the briefing appeared in The Australian newspaper on Thursday, which Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen said “appears to be further politicisation of government agencies”.

The conflict has prompted some experts to call for agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to intervene by publicly releasing a version of its advice, without compromising sources, to improve transparency and reduce the risk of politicisation.

“ASIO should produce a redacted version that doesn’t give away national security or imperil the sources of intelligence,” said John Coyne, head of the border security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Dr Phelps' legislation would compel ministers to transfer refugees from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia on the advice of two independent doctors in Australia. The minister would have limited capacity to overrule the doctors on security grounds.

Ms Richards said the Liberal Government had removed every child from Nauru or has delivered a clear path off it.

“The Labor member for Macquarie said she was concerned about children ‘living a life in limbo’, but you don’t get children off Nauru by putting more on. That is what Labor wants to do, by tearing apart our strong border policies,” she said. 

“Our intelligence agencies have made it clear. A weakening of our border protection policies will have dire consequences for both national security and the potential victims of people smuggling.”