News National Labor ponders refugee policy as PM warns of ‘world of woe’

Labor ponders refugee policy as PM warns of ‘world of woe’

nauru refugees evacuation
The year's federal election battle looks set to play out around refugees, Paula Matthewson writes. Photo: AAP
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Bill Shorten will “unleash a world of woe” if he supports legislation to enshrine medical evacuations from Nauru and Manus Island in any form, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned.

Labor leader Bill Shorten spent Monday afternoon locked in meetings with his shadow cabinet after a government briefing outlining problems in the proposed reforms for medical evacuations from Nauru and Manus Island.

The one-hour briefing by defence and intelligence officials in Canberra was also attended by Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann.

Frontbenchers signalled Labor might amend the legislation to ensure the minister has the final say on medical evacuations. But Mr Morrison said amendments were unacceptable in any form.

“They have no idea of the consequences of what they are playing with. They will unleash a world of woe again. How do I know? I’ve seen it before. And I never ever want to see it again,” he said.

“If Bill Shorten allows that bill to pass in any way, shape or form, that’s the test. The only test is will Bill Shorten cave in and undermine our border protection by passing this bill in my form? And if he does, Australians have only been able to confirm what they already know about him.”

migrant evacuation nauru
Mr Morrison at the National Press Club. Photo: AAP

Speaking at the National Press Club on Monday, Mr Morrison was asked if he could explain why hundreds of evacuations under his watch had not started the boats but this legislation would.

“These transfers have occurred quietly, under the existing policy. And they’ve been done by the government, not by anyone else,’’ he said.

“The government remains in control of our border and the people smugglers know it, so long as this government is running the show. The problem with the bill is, it takes control from the government, the elected government, which has to take into account all the considerations that impact on the nation’s interests and doesn’t subcontract it out to others who don’t have those same interests or responsibilities.”

Left-wing Labor MPs who have championed the reforms are warning Mr Shorten not to back down.

“Looking forward to finishing the job we started last year in Parliament, and ensuring that people in our care get looked after. Hoping for a reasoned debate on this, in place of the desperate lies and hysteria of the government,” Labor’s Andrew Giles said.

More than 5700 doctors from the Doctors Make Change group also urged parliamentarians to support the Urgent Medical Transfer Bill before it is debated in the House of Representatives this week.

“This bill is a sensible solution which allows doctors to take care of their patients if they need urgent care not available on Nauru or Manus. You can read the bill here,” the group told colleagues.

The group led by Dr Sara Townend and Dr Neela Janakiramanan collected 5725 signatories within 48 hours. They intend taking the letter to Parliament.

Earlier, opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen said Labor was ready to talk to experts, including Defence and ASIO, about the legislation and would respect their advice.

“If there’s further discussions to be had with crossbench colleagues and others across the Parliament in terms of ensuring those two objectives are met, then he’ll have those,” Mr Bowen said.

“The Leader of the Opposition is having a briefing. He’ll take into account that briefing.”

But some Labor backbenchers are pushing for the legislation to be supported as it stands. Labor helped to craft the bill in the Senate and the ALP conference endorsed the concept in December.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese told ABC radio that he would advocate for a compassionate response to the medical needs of asylum seekers that Australia was “responsible for.”

“I’ll be bringing my values, which are that you can be tough on border security without being weak on humanity,” he said.

“What we have got to do here is take a step back from the government’s rather hysterical rhetoric and think about what this bill is about.

“This is a bill about whether people who we have a responsibility for, who we are obligated to look after, if they are sick and in need of medical care, whether they should get access to that. Now our view, very clearly, is yes.”