The moment has finally arrived to abandon Australia’s internationally condemned mandatory offshore detention of refugees and people seeking asylum. The Parliament on Monday will have a bipartisan opportunity to close one of the most shameful chapters in the nation’s history, when fledgling independent member for the former blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth, Dr Kerryn Phelps, introduces a private member’s bill to evacuate the remaining children and their families from Nauru.
Children, dozens of whom were born in detention, have become catatonic with despair. Self-harm and suicide have become frequent there, and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where the men have spent their years in limbo in contravention of international refugee law of which Australia was a founding signatory.
Dr Phelps' Urgent Medical Treatment Bill also requires the evacuation of any refugees or people seeking asylum on Nauru or Manus Island who are psychologically or physically ill, on the recommendation of at least two treating doctors.
Several factors make this a propitious moment. Polls show the majority of Australians are uncomfortable with the mandatory offshore detention policy. The Kids Off Nauru movement presented a petition of 170,000 to Parliament last week. The issue was fundamental in Dr Phelps' victory in the seat vacated by Malcolm Turnbull after his colleagues dumped him for no apparent reason, eroding the government’s position in the polls and rendering it a minority team.
As the Victorian election showed, there is an appetite for progress. The result was a repudiation of dog-whistling on social issues including ethnicity, sexuality and gender, refugees and crime.
Dr Phelps, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, has provided the Prime Minister with noble cover. She said: ‘‘I’d like to see a bipartisan approach to this situation. It’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s a medical solution, not a political solution and I’d like to see the house rise above party politics.’’ So would the nation.
Passing the motion would require the ALP, all the crossbench and at least one Coalition defector.
Many in the government know the policy is increasingly unpopular; not only is it seen as cruel, an investigation found the overwhelming reason people-smugglers’ boats have stopped is because our border protection forces are proving highly effective at turning back vessels.
The government, mindful of the backlash building, has been steadily removing children from Nauru, and says it wants all children off by the end of the year. The Papua New Guinea High Court ruled years ago the detention centre on Manus Island was unconstitutional.
The government would be right and smart to turn this into a fine national moment, rather than block it and appear irrational and nasty – or to try to block it, lose, and appear impotent, too.