Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston
Margo's note
After the election I had dinner with Kerryn Phelps and friends as part of a project to write a book about the No Fibs #independentsday campaign, in the hope more quality indies would emerge to seek to serve the people, not their parties and themselves. I cancelled the project when my Mum, with whom I live, was diagnosed with leukaemia.

As a tribute to Kerryn, I publish her account of those magic days when she led the successful campaign for the Medevac Bill. She and her campaign manager Darrin Barnett are the speakers.

Kerryn: That was an extraordinary experience and Darrin and I worked hand-in-glove because I couldn’t have done without Darrin and his connections in the Labor Party. The Labor Party had been fiddle-farting around with its refugee policy for a really long time and they were completely paralysed, they weren’t game to step up and do something because the right couldn’t agree with the left.

I said to the refugee advocates: “What is the biggest problem?”. They said we cannot get medical care to the people who need it, because the doctors were recommending transfer to Australia for treatment and the bureaucrats under the Minister’s instructions were blocking all of those medical transfers.

Darrin: They were doing it according to the profile of the person, not the medical need. Effectively, if you’re a single bloke on Manus Island you’re not going to get evacuated, so someone died from a cut on his foot.

Kerryn: So I said the way we do this is we get a couple of doctors to give an opinion and then you can make things move. And the refugee advocates, wherever they were, arrived in our office and set up camp and stayed for two weeks. At any one time we had 21 people sitting in my office on chairs, on floors, on the lounges. Forget me having an office, if I wanted to have a phone call I went to the toilet.

We had shadow ministers coming in and out and the reason we got away with it without the Liberals twigging until the night before it went to the Senate was we were right down the end of Parliament House with no through traffic, so people were just wandering through coming to my office and no-one could see them coming or going to this hive of activity; and I said to Shane Neumann (Labor’s immigration spokesman): “Will you agree to this, and this?” and he’d say in principle: “Yes, I have to go back to the Caucus.”

Darrin: This was all playing out while Kids off Nauru was still a campaign. There’s no doubt that the Wentworth by-election put the Kids off Nauru on the map. There was always a big set of events for that campaign planned for that final sitting fortnight.

Kerryn: So we were out the front of Parliament House with hundreds of people, little kids, placards, refugees, Jimmy Barnes, there were truckloads of petitions, and Andrew Wilkie (independent MP for the Tasmanian seat of Clark) and I carried this massive petition into the Prime Minister’s office – which we never got a receipt for.

We had #6000doctors, and we said we know you’re behind the Kids off Nauru campaign, we need you to get behind Medevac legislation. So once we announced what we were going to do the 6000 doctors signed the petition within 48 hours, and the AMA (Australian Medical Association) came in behind it, which brought a dozen medical colleges in.

Then as we were getting agreement with the Labor Party I had to individually talk to Richard di Natale, Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie and get their agreement. All the refugee lawyers contacted their external QCs, who drafted and redrafted the legislation.

I knew from my time as AMA president that you need to listen to what everyone is saying and know what the different political agendas were, and find a compromise that is politically satisfactory, even though not ideal, to everyone. We had Ged Kearney, Tony Burke and Anthony Albanese talking to us about what the friction points might be.

Darrin: Anthony Albanese got shadow cabinet to come and talk to you one-on-one and then went back into shadow cabinet.

Kerryn: We then had to work out how to get the House of Representatives to debate this and pass it before everything finished. We didn’t have the numbers to suspend standing orders because you have to have an absolute majority, so Quentin Clements, who works for World Vision (he’d been chief of staff to two Senate presidents) piped up and said: “Ha, but there is a nondescript miscellaneous Home Affairs amendment bill going through the Senate on this particular day”. So we said: “This is miscellaneous” and bolted it on to that bill and it went through the Senate and then we waited for it to come back, but Hanson and Bernardi filibustered in the Senate so it took much longer that we expected and then Morrison said ‘Ho, ho, ho Merry Christmas’ and closed down Parliament.

Darrin: Labor had to do it so it would go to national conference in December with something on refugees for the left. People like Tanya and Ged were insisting that something be done. But because of the filibustering the bill just sat there as the first notice of business for 2019. So Morrison got all the kids off Nauru so he could run the more potent line that all those left could be rapists or murderers.

The government went feral over the break, and Mike Pezzullo (head of the Immigration Department) was of the view was that Medevac was a pull factor, then Shorten and Tanya did a briefing with him and said it would be limited to those already on Manus and Nauru. So Pezzullo said that meant no pull factor. He didn’t have to say that, I think that was his way of saying he wanted to keep his job under a Labor government. For us, that was when it all calmed down. That was the critical piece of information that allowed Labor to say we had the briefing. Pezzullo was thinking that Labor was going to win the election. He didn’t have to say that, that was his way of saying ‘I want to keep my job under a Labor government’. And for us, that was when it all calmed down.

For me it’s a tragedy Kerryn didn’t sneak in again. I’m thinking Sharma will want to get in the ministry so he’ll keep his head down. Kerryn would have been a natural leader on the crossbench, and a shining star for Wentworth. Still, she came bloody close.