Scott Morrison is pushing ahead with his attempt to repeal the medevac law that gives doctors the major role in transferring sick refugees to Australia for treatment.
The Prime Minister is exerting maximum pressure on Tasmanian independent Senator Jacquie Lambie – the last vote he needs to dump the humanitarian law imposed on the government earlier this year when it lacked a majority in both houses.
Senator Lambie has been sympathetic to intense lobbying from doctors and refugee advocates, concerned that the 500 or so refugees and asylum seekers are now into their seventh year of remote detention on Nauru and Manus Island.
But the senator is refusing to disclose what her condition is for her to support the repeal.
Ms Lambie’s office says she had a “constructive meeting” with the PM on Monday, but it was after the meeting Mr Morrison told a news conference that “our policies” on allowing these refugees resettlement in New Zealand “hasn’t changed”.
The government is portraying any amending of Australia’s bipartisan policy of deterrence through cruelty as weakness and Mr Morrison believes he is on a winner whether the bill fails or not.
This would appear to fly in the face of a new Guardian Essential Poll that shows 62 per cent of Australians support medevac.
To listen to the PM and his senior colleagues is to believe the sick men and women brought to Australia are automatically set free, whereas they are held in detention while treated, unless Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton approves their release as Labor’s Kristina Keneally reminded the Senate.
More than that, medevac transfers are for a temporary purpose and Mr Dutton can send them back to their island prisons – as award-winning refugee author Behrouz Boochani describes them – at any time.
In the Orwellian habit of this government, the repeal bill is called “Repairing Medical Transfers Bill”.
But as the Greens’ Nick McKimm told the Senate, it was medevac that did the repairing.
Before medevac 12 people died in Australia’s offshore “care”. Since medevac there have been no deaths.
Senator McKimm said lives have been saved because there have been transfers for care that detainees had “previously been deliberately deprived of by mendacious ministers and bureaucrats who were acting in political interest and self-interest rather than in accordance with human rights law”.
Government senate leader Mathias Cormann says Senator Lambie and every individual senator has the decision to “stand on the side of stronger national security or weaker national security”.
Senator Lambie has previously accepted the findings of most submissions to a senate inquiry that medevac was no threat to national security and certainly apart from bald assertions that medevac has allowed people to come to Australia who “demonstrably should not have come to Australia” the government has failed to make a convincing case they are a threat.
Mr Dutton often reminds us it was Labor’s policy under Kevin Rudd that put these “boat people” on Manus and Nauru but Senator Keneally says that offshore processing was always intended to be “exactly as its name suggests. Processing”.
Labor insists it would have accepted New Zealand’s offer years ago, which by now would have seen 1000 resettled rather than punished for fleeing persecution as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has found is the case for most of these hapless people.
We can hardly be proud as a nation that our PM thinks he is on a political winner, even if Senator Lambie backs her humanitarian instincts and refuses to vote for the repeal.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics