Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre and will warn people smugglers not to target Australia after the passage of new laws to allow the medical evacuation of potentially hundreds of refugees.
The campaign to prevent what the government claims could be an influx of asylum seekers will mirror video appeals and messages that Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott used in 2013 to send a message to refugees not to risk the boat journey to Australia.
It will target people smuggling networks in Indonesia, but is also likely to play into the 2019 election campaign, raising the rhetoric on refugees.
Mr Morrison’s move followed Wednesday’s passage in the Senate of the medical evacuation bill, designed to meet the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers still on Nauru and Manus Island.
“I’ll be engaging in some very direct messaging as part of Operation Sovereign Borders with people smugglers and with those who might be thinking of getting on boats,” Mr Morrison said.
“Not the first time I have done that, to send very clear messaging that my government is in control of the borders.”
But authorities on Christmas Island on Wednesday afternoon reportedly labelled the federal government’s decision to reopen the territory’s immigration detention centre as a “knee-jerk reaction”, saying it is ill-equipped to deal with refugees sent there in poor health.
Shire of Christmas Island CEO David Price told the ABC he did not see how the legislation would “open up a flood of boats coming up over the horizon again”.
He also said the island did not have the facilities to deal with 1000 asylum seeker arrivals and transfers, the number he said had been suggested could be sent to the reopened detention centre.
“We’ve got a hospital [but] it doesn’t do operations. People are medevaced out quite regularly here for medical reasons as it’s only a small regional hospital,” he told ABC Radio Perth.
“We just wouldn’t have the capacity here to deal with people coming here for medical reasons, both physically and mentally.
“They’d have to be airvaced off to the mainland Australia and, if that’s the case, why wouldn’t we airvac them off to the mainland in the first place?
“For the life of me, I just can’t see how we would be able to handle that.”
Earlier, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten sought to send his own message to would-be asylum seekers.
“I just say to people trying to put out the welcome mat for people smugglers, the medevac legislation applies for people who are already there. It does not apply to anyone new,” he said.
“If you think that by buying a ticket on an unsafe boat, paying a people smuggler, a criminal syndicate, you’ll get a better deal to come to Australia, you’re wrong.”
Under the new laws – controversially passed on Tuesday in the first defeat in the lower house of a sitting government in since 1941 – the home affairs minister will have 72 hours to decide whether to agree to a refugee’s medical transfer.
If the application is rejected, it can be reviewed by a medical panel, which can recommend it goes ahead.
Then it’s up to the minister to reject it on medical grounds again, or national security grounds, or if the person poses a threat to the Australian community.
Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the government was trying to “whip up hysteria and fear mongering”, ignoring the fact the new laws applied only to refugees already on Manus Island and Nauru.
Earlier, the Prime Minister confirmed that cabinet’s National Security Committee had approved reopening Christmas Island’s detention facilities, which were mothballed late last year.
“We have approved putting in place the reopening of the Christmas Island detention facilities and a series of compounds there, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers,” Mr Morrison said.
The government also claimed that some refugees who might apply to come to Australia could be pedophiles and murderers.
Despite the new amendments including a tougher character test, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton insisted that “at least nine” asylum seekers who could be eligible for evacuation had been involved in sex with underage locals.
“People that have been alleged to have been involved in sexual relationships with minors on Manus, people that have been alleged to have committed murder in one case, in Iran, these are the people that now will be permitted to come under what Labor’s passed through the lower house,” he said.
Declassified intelligence advice released by the government this week warned that reopening Christmas Island was an option if the legislation passed the Senate.
Costings released separately predicted the cost might be up to $1 billion. However, housing asylum seekers in Australia is still cheaper than holding them overseas.
The PM confirmed the National Security Committee met to “take decisions that were necessary following on from the contingency planning”.
“I want to stress that all of the actions and decisions that we are taking are implementing the recommendations of these agencies and the officials as presented to us this morning,” he said.
“That has involved a strengthening of the capacity of Operation Sovereign Borders across a whole range of fronts. I am not at liberty to go into the detail of what they are for obvious reasons. This Parliament has already tipped its hand enough to the people smugglers.”
Mr Morrison also said that if refugee boats did not arrive in Australia in coming months, it would be due to his government’s efforts. If they did arrive, it would be Mr Shorten’s fault.
“If they don’t come, it will be because of the work and the decisions we are now taking and the actions we are putting in place,” he said.
“If they do come, you can thank the Labor Party and Bill Shorten because he is the one who has led this process.”
Mr Morrison was asked if he would maintain his habit of not commenting “on water matters” of Operation Sovereign Borders if a boat arrived or whether he would change the process to highlight boat arrivals following the Labor-led reforms.
Mr Morrison said the “integrity” of the government’s approach to OSB remained.