News National Government loses face in historic asylum seekers vote

Government loses face in historic asylum seekers vote

Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will reduce the cap by 15 per cent. Photo: AAP
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Australia is “back on the map” of people smugglers, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton claimed on Tuesday night after the government was defeated in a historic vote in Parliament.

The landmark legislation, which was originally proposed by Dr Kerryn Phelps and later amended by Labor and the crossbench in the Senate, passed 75-74 in the House of Representatives.

It will allow doctors a greater say in the medical evacuation of potentially hundreds of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. It also allows the home affairs minister 72 hours to make a preliminary decision.

It’s the first time since 1941 the government has lost a vote on legislation on the floor of Parliament, but the PM insisted it did not represent a vote of no confidence and he will not call an early election.

Labor would not rule out a motion of no confidence that could spark an election, urging Mr Morrison to reflect on precedents where prime ministers in similar circumstances called an election after the defeat in Parliament.

Instead, Mr Morrison predicted Opposition Leader Bill Shorten would rue the day he joined forces with the Greens to “dismantle” Australia’s border protection regime.

“The Australian people have looked at Bill Shorten today and they have found him weak, and he is,” Mr Morrison said.

“My job now is to work with our border protection and security agencies to do everything in my power to mitigate the damaging impact of what Labor have done tonight.”

Mr Shorten dismissed the government’s warnings as overblown.

“Last week the prime minister said that this amended bill would be superfluous and to ignore it,” he told Parliament.

“Today the government tells us that this bill is a constitutional crisis.

“The fact of the matter is this bill is about providing treatment to sick people.”

Mr Morrison confirmed his senior ministers were in crisis talks with senior defence officials and would not rule out increasing patrols to repel asylum seeker boats.

“Contingency plans have been put in place,” he said.

“The Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs are meeting now with our Border Protection Command to work through the contingency planning that we have been putting in place for this outcome.”

He said he will be making further announcements about the government’s border protection plans.

The bill was welcomed by author and journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been held on Manus Island for six years.

“It’s a historical moment for all of the refugees on Manus and Nauru. Many people are happy now because they will finally receive medical treatment. Great to see the Australian parliament finally vote for humanity,” he tweeted.

Labor’s victory with the crossbench followed a day of drama sparked by the Morrison government’s last-minute attempt to claim the legislation was “unconstitutional”.

This was based on an argument the legislation was a “money bill” that cannot originate in the Senate.

Sensationally, the Speaker Tony Smith revealed the government had received this Solicitor-General’s advice on February 7 but kept it secret and asked Mr Smith to also keep it secret on February 10.

Mr Smith declined and informed the Parliament.

Attorney-General Christian Porter claimed the matter is headed for the High Court.

But Labor, the Greens and the crossbench stared down threats. The  government was defeated on the floor of Parliament 75-74 by the alliance that included former Liberal MP Julia Banks.

Earlier, Labor and the Greens reached agreement on further changes to the amendments to ensure that ministers had up to 72 hours to consider applications in the first instance and up to seven days in total.

Previously, when similar votes were lost in 1929 and 1941 it triggered a change of government.

Manager of opposition business Tony Burke said no opposition would ever rule out a motion of no confidence and he did not intend to do so.

Mr Dutton warned the boats will start again.

“No, this puts Australia back on the map for people smugglers and Bill Shorten has that on his shoulders,” Mr Dutton said.

“That’s the reality what we have seen in the house tonight. We have got four kids left on Nauru who packed their bags ready to go to the United States.”

Asked if he will abide by the new law, Mr Dutton said he was “worried”.

“Of course, we will. The law will be abided by, as it always is,” he said.

“We brought a significant number of people here either for medical attention or people in a family unit to support the person coming here for medical attention, but I am worried about the consequences of the deal that’s been struck between Mr Shorten and the Greens tonight.”

Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser said it was a historic day.

“Today we saw politics at its best, with MPs across the floor working together to ensure a humane solution. The current medical transfer system is broken. People needing urgent medical assistance have severely deteriorated and even died,” Mr de Kretser said.

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