Medevac laws: doctors complain advice is not being given to Peter Dutton quickly enough

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP

Doctors overseeing the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia for medical treatment have raised concerns about delays in their advice being presented to Peter Dutton in the latest official snapshot of activity under the medevac regime.

That reference in the report, tabled in the Senate late on Wednesday, will reinforce concerns among refugee advocates that the medical transfer process has been slowed as the Morrison government has counted down the weeks until it can attempt to repeal the medevac regime, which was passed during the last parliament when the Coalition governed in minority.

As well as the complaint that advice isn’t getting to Dutton quickly enough, the Independent Health Advice Panel (IHAP) has also flagged concerns about the lack of in-person interpreters available for transferees – “especially those with mental health issues” – and about “lack of movement from Nauru when the panel has recommended transfer to Australia”.

Related: The fight over medevac and the people caught in the middle

The latest report from the medical panel documents that 57 medevac cases were considered between July and September 2019, and the home affairs minister approved transfers to Australia for medical treatment in 12 cases.

Dutton denied transfers on medical grounds in 45 cases. Contrary to an impression Dutton has created that the government has been “forced” to bring people to Australia under the medevac system, including people of “bad character” – the IHAP upheld the minister’s decision in all cases.

The report also indicates that membership of the IHAP has expanded, and now includes members from the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and the Australian Psychological Society.

The latest snapshot of the medevac regime had been due for tabling within three sitting days after 30 September, but the document was not produced until Labor moved an order for the production of documents in the Senate.

The Morrison government wants to repeal the regime but has been is one vote short. The critical swing vote is the independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who insisted on having a Senate inquiry into medevac before she made her decision.

There was some expectation that the repeal vote would be brought on this week because the Senate is sitting but it has not surfaced yet, and Lambie has previously warned the government against launching pre-emptive action.

The medevac laws allow for Australian-based doctors to recommend a refugee or asylum seeker offshore be transferred to Australia for care. The minister can refuse if he disagrees with the clinical assessment – in which case it goes to the independent medical panel for review – or on security or criminal grounds. The panel cannot override vetoes based on security or criminal concerns.

Labor, the Greens, key crossbenchers, and most relevant stakeholders have opposed a repeal of the laws.