'Put ethics before politics' on Nauru, doctors urge Labor candidate
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'Put ethics before politics' on Nauru, doctors urge Labor candidate

Refugee doctors have called on federal election candidate Brian Owler to place medical ethics above Labor party politics and take a stand to get all asylum seekers off Nauru, as the former AMA president prepares to battle for the seat of Bennelong.

Dr Barri Phatarfod, the founder of Doctors For Refugees, called on Professor Owler to place the Hippocratic Oath – sworn by all medical practitioners, and enshrining the principle of doing no harm – ahead of political considerations.

"We'd like to see him adhere to the principles he promoted while AMA president, and not be cowed down by the Labor political machine," she said.

Labor candidate for Bennelong, Brian Owler, is under pressure on asylum seekers.

Labor candidate for Bennelong, Brian Owler, is under pressure on asylum seekers.Credit:Paul Braven

Professor Owler, who was parachuted into the race over the preselected candidate last Tuesday, was a vocal advocate for asylum seekers during his time running the peak medical body.

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But in a recent interview with Fairfax Media, while repeating his view that "we need to get children off Nauru", Professor Owler was careful to toe the party line, saying: "The last thing we want to see is the people smugglers start up in business."

"We don't want to see people drowning at sea and we need to have a strong border policy," the Sydney neurosurgeon said.

The comments stand in contrast to a speech Professor Owler delivered in 2016, when he said it was "not possible to provide the level of care that Australian citizens would expect when you are on an island as isolated and remote as Manus Island or Nauru".

"Keeping people in such locations when they are sick places these people at risk of death," the then AMA president said at the time.

Opposition immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann has confirmed Labor has no plans to stop sending asylum seekers – including children – to Nauru if it wins government. Professor Owler intends to vote along party lines if elected.

Dr Phatarfod, who ran as the Labor candidate in the seat of Bligh at the 2003 NSW state election, said she had quit the party due to its stance on the issue.

"The concern really is that neither of the major parties are paying attention to what the experts are saying," she said.

Professor David Isaacs, a Sydney paediatrician who has worked on Nauru and now advocates on behalf of asylum-seeker children from Australia, called on Professor Owler to bring "a more ethical slant" to asylum-seeker policy.

"I think both sides of politics need to learn what ethics is," he said.

Fellow former AMA president Kerryn Phelps' landslide victory in last month's Wentworth byelection sent a message to the Coalition that voter concern about children in offshore detention could jeopardise key seats, prompting the government to reveal that it planned to "quietly" get children off the island by Christmas.

But the fate of hundreds of adult refugees remains in the balance, with neither party willing to risk a policy that could result in a resurgence of boat arrivals.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said on Wednesday that Labor was "up for compromise", calling on Mr Morrison to "accept the New Zealand deal", which the prime minister has rejected on the basis that the government "will not horse trade on border protection".

Mr Shorten said the Immigration Department should be guided by the advice of asylum seeker children's "treating medical practitioner" when considering whether a child should be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

But Professor Isaacs rejected this approach, saying some medical staff on Nauru were refusing to make transfer referrals for seriously ill children.

"The families, when they go to the emergency department with very sick kids, they say, 'We will call the police if you don't make your child eat and drink'," he said.

"We had a dad the other day who brought his child to the hospital because they were really worried, and the dad was handcuffed and taken off to prison.

"We are petrified that one of these children is going to die."

Refugee advocates say politicians on both sides have privately expressed "abhorrence" at the situation on the island, but that most felt bound to vote along party lines.

Dr Nick Martin, who was deported from Nauru after speaking out about conditions, dismissed news the Morrison government planned to transfer all children by Christmas as political "profiteering".

He said it was "breathtakingly cynical" for Mr Morrison to claim to be getting kids off the island, while at the same time fighting in the courts to stop asylum seekers from being transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

On Friday, the government was unsuccessful in challenging the Federal Court's power to order the evacuation of dangerously ill refugee children from Nauru, including an 11-year-old Iranian girl who had not eaten for more than a fortnight.

AMA president Tony Bartone called for "a legislated long-term policy to ensure that the health and wellbeing crises that occurred on Nauru never happen again – on Nauru or at any other centres run by the Australian government".

Coalition MPs Julia Banks, Russell Broadbent and Craig Laundy last month broke ranks to call for children to be transferred, after independent Andrew Wilkie gave notice of a private member's bill that would bring families to Australia for medical treatment.

Dana is a federal politics reporter, covering health and industrial relations. Previously, she was a reporter for The Australian.