How women helped secure a historic victory for refugees in Canberra

How women helped secure a historic victory for refugees in Canberra

Tuesday the 12th of February was historic. It wasn’t easy or pretty and nor is it over, but for the first time since 1929 a sitting Government lost a substantive vote in the House of Representatives.

Just after 6pm on Tuesday evening the medical transfers bill, that guarantees urgent medical care to sick refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, passed the House by one vote.

(It headed to the senate on Wednesday morning and despite fears it may have been derailed by Senator Derryn Hinch and passed 36 votes to 34.)

That the provision of humanity to refugees is toxic and divisive is shameful. But toxic and divisive it is and it’s taken the advocacy and leadership of women, ultimately, to finally trigger a break in the cycle.

Dr Kerryn Phelps has championed this bill on medical grounds since she arrived in Canberra as the elected member for Wentworth in late 2019.

She has used her power as an independent to help make this Bill happen: not in isolation but in collaboration with other independents, with Labor and with the Greens.

Other women have been instrumental in building the momentum to ensure this issue was dealt with in Canberra.

Dr Sara Townend and Dr Neela Janakiramanan led a grassroots campaign with the goal of urgently evacuating critically ill children and families. They gathered the support of 6000 medical doctors and presented a petition to the Prime Minister with a view to triggering a response.

The underrepresentation of women in parliament presents a number of fundamental challenges and inequities not least of which is the pressure it puts on the few women who are there. By virtue of being so much smaller in number the focus on female politicians is immense. Being good enough is rarely enough.

The inclination to diefy female representatives isn’t helpful for anyone, least of all them, because it creates an impossible bind. No one is perfect and painting anyone in that light will only ensure and hasten their descent. (Hillary Clinton anyone?)

Female politicians have as much right to occupy the full spectrum of talent as male politicians have and do. Some will be brilliant, some mediocre, and some downright flawed.

Dr Kerryn Phelps doesn’t need to be perfect but what she is proving to be is far better. Effective.

She looked to solve a protracted toxic problem that Australian voters care about and has got closer to doing that than anyone in recent history.

Similarly Dr Townend and Dr Janakiramanan looked to solve a problem and mobilised their professional peers quickly and effectively in support.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that women helped secure this momentous victory or perhaps it reinforces what we know about what a diversity of experience brings to the table. It can change the way problems are viewed and solved.

Either way the passage of the MediVac bill through the house and the senate is a victory. It’s not the end of the problem – far from it – there are lives irreparably damaged because of indefinite detention, but this is the start of fixing it and it’s only possible because a woman arrived in Canberra determined to do just that.

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