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Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has used the departure of the last refugee children off Nauru to increase the pressure on Labor over the medical transfers legislation and claim Australians will be “kicked off” waiting lists for healthcare and public housing.
The assertion was rubbished by crossbench MP and doctor Kerryn Phelps, the primary architect of the legislation, who said it was nonsense to suggest the small caseload would squeeze Australia’s hospital system.
Mr Dutton confirmed the final four minors on Nauru, along with their families, left by plane for the United States on Wednesday, to be resettled under the arrangement struck by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
He said it was “a big day” and “a big achievement” for the Coalition government after Labor put thousands of children into immigration detention, including on Nauru.
But Mr Dutton immediately dialled up his attack on Labor’s support for the medical transfer legislation, which will allow critically ill refugees and asylum seekers to come to Australia for treatment, claiming it would result in Australians missing out on healthcare at hospitals.
The law passed against the minority government’s wishes with the support of Labor and the crossbench.
“People who need medical services are going to be displaced from those services, because if you bring hundreds and hundreds of people from Nauru and Manus down to our country, they are going to go into the health network,” Mr Dutton told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.
“I don’t want to see Australians who are in waiting lines at public hospitals kicked off those waiting lines because people from Nauru and Manus are now going to access those health services.
“I don’t want to see Australians who are on waiting lists for housing, or already occupying housing, being kicked out of that housing because of people arriving off Manus and Nauru. It’s not fair … these people are conning us.”
The claims drew a harsh response from Dr Kerryn Phelps, who was a primary architect of the medical transfers legislation.
About 1000 refugees and asylum seekers remain on Manus and Nauru, but Dr Phelps said only about 70 required treatment and it was “just cruel” of Mr Dutton to target “vulnerable Australians” with a false scare campaign.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare there were 701 public hospitals in Australia in 2015-16 with 61,000 hospital beds. A further 630 private hospitals provided another 33,100 beds.
“We’re talking about 70 people who are likely to need [an] urgent transfer. We know that the system has capacity to look after those people,” Dr Phelps told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“We have hundreds of hospitals on the eastern seaboard. The major teaching hospitals with specialist services see thousands and thousands of patients every week.”
The government has advice from the Department of Home Affairs saying up to 300 people could be transferred in the near term, and that all 1000 people on the islands would likely be eligible to seek a transfer.
Mr Dutton said the government provided “the best medical assistance possible” on Manus Island and Nauru, and that anybody who argued otherwise was “lying”.
“If under Bill Shorten’s law, we’re seeing people at hospitals miss out on medical services because people are taking it from Nauru and Manus, people will be angry about that as well,” the Home Affairs Minister said.
It was unclear how Mr Dutton’s assertion was consistent with the government’s previous insistence that refugees and asylum seekers would be taken to Christmas Island for their medical treatment.
Immigration Minister David Coleman, a junior minister to Mr Dutton, previously said he was confident all the necessary care could be provided on the remote island. That was despite residents of the island regularly being sent to Perth and the mainland for treatment.