News National Scott Morrison has formally hit the panic button
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Scott Morrison has formally hit the panic button

scott Morrison refugee transfer bill
Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Monday. Photo: AAP
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Scott Morrison is desperately in need of a circuit breaker. Something dramatic to save his government and pull off an unlikely election win.

The opinion polls are stubbornly stuck in wipeout territory, the latest Newspoll just confirming the trend not only since August, but since the last federal election in 2016.

Nothing is working, not even the promise of a million new jobs.

When all else fails, go for fear and loathing. Fear for the nation and its citizens, and loathing of your main political opponent as a threat to our way of life as we know it.

So a bill that would take the politics out of transferring sick refugees and asylum seekers from the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru for treatment in Australia is hyped to the equivalent of a green light for a new “invasion” as then opposition leader Tony Abbott called the flood of boat arrivals in the lead up to the 2013 election.

Mr Morrison told the National Press Club: ”If Bill Shorten allows that bill to pass in any way, shape or form, that’s the test. That’s the only test going on in Parliament this week. It’s not who wins or loses a vote. The only test is: Will Bill Shorten cave in and undermine our border protection by passing this bill in any form?”

Undermining this strident hyperbole is the fact that since 2013, there have been more than 800 such medical transfers and they have not led to the threatened influx of new arrivals.

Sure a key reason is that in the same period, 600 “boat people” have been turned back. But Defence Minister Christopher Pyne sent a strong signal on Sunday that should Labor pass the transfer bill, then the government will stop the interceptions.

A new spate of successful boat arrivals before the election could be a 2019 version of the Tampa mercy ship that an embattled John Howard demonised as a threat that needed fully armed, black-clad commandos to board and stop.

There is a precedent: The Liberals in opposition refused to vote for the Gillard Labor government’s Malaysian people swap – a turn-back strategy that they feared may just work.

At the time one senior Liberal told me: “The more boats that come the better for us.”

Mr Pyne told Barrie Cassidy on Insiders: “Shorten’s law will weaken border protection in Australia. There will be more people-smuggling boats arriving and we’ll have to re-open Christmas Island. That’ll cost $1.4 billion.”

That presumes that all 1000 hapless people who have been holed up for five years are sick enough for immediate transfer. It’s an admission of the terrible human cost the deterrence-through-cruelty policy is exacting.

The fact is, this is not 2001. Scott Morrison is not John Howard – a long- time prime minister – and the world is not reeling from the horror of the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre and other targets in the United States.

If indeed the boats were allowed to start arriving again, surely the blame would be worn as much, if not more, by the government as Labor.

Mr Shorten, after all, is only proposing to take the politics out of medical transfers. Once treated he proposes to send the refugees back. Nevertheless, the government has successfully put him in a hard place. It will be a test of his political smarts.

The best outcome for him would be for the crossbench to accept an amendment to the Senate bill stiffening ministerial discretion. This would lead to the first defeat of a government on substantial legislation in 90 years.

No wonder Scott Morrison is very afraid.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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