Scott Morrison has refused to rule out resettling asylum seekers in New Zealand under a ‘secret deal’ brokered to repeal the medevac laws with Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Declaring that he had kept a promise with the Australian people to dump the laws because they weakened border protection, the Prime Minister was cryptic about whether it could open the door to a change of policy on resettlement in New Zealand.
“The government is always looking at ways to resettle those who are on Nauru,” he responded.
There is speculation that the Morrison government’s deal with Senator Lambie could see asylum seekers finally allowed to take up an offer to settle in New Zealand but only when the US people swap deal is completed.
Earlier, Ms Lambie voted to repeal laws allowing for the medical evacuation of sick asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.
The Senate voted to dump the laws on Wednesday morning, amid uproar in the Senate chamber over the refusal of the government to reveal what the compromise deal will entail. The final vote was won 37 to 35.
Senator Lambie wept as she declared her support for the abolition of the medevac laws.
“I’m not being coy or silly when I say I genuinely can’t say what I proposed. I know that’s frustrating to people,” she said.
“And I get that. I don’t like holding things back like this. But when I say I can’t discuss it publicly due to national security concerns, I am being 100 per cent honest to you.”
“This is a matter of conscience. I can’t let the boats start back up and I can’t let refugees die, whether it’s sinking into the ocean or waiting for a doctor and I am voting to make sure that neither of these things happen.”
One reason why Ms Lambie might agree not to disclose the deal on ‘national security grounds’ is if the government has given her advice that announcing the New Zealand deal publicly could restart the boats.
The Prime Minister said last week “our policies on those matters haven’t changed.”
In July, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Australia would up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 offshore refugees “when and if” it did not encourage more boat arrivals.
“I have never ruled out the New Zealand option but I’ve made the point and I make it again today – now is not the right time for us to be sending people to New Zealand,” Mr Dutton said.
“There may be a time when we can exercise the New Zealand option – we’re grateful for it, but we will exercise that option when and if it is in our national interest and it’s not going to restart boats.”
Earlier, Senate leader Matthias Cormann appeared to contradict Senator Lambie’s admission by claiming there was no horse-trading on the laws.
“There is no secret deal. There is no secret,” he said.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said both accounts could not be correct.
“Someone is misleading the Senate. Someone is misleading the Senate about one of the most important pieces of legislation that has been before this Parliament,” he said.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese signalled Labor would continue to support medevac.
“You can be strong on borders without being weak on humanity. And on every issue, that’s what’s missing from this government – humanity,” he said.
“From robodebt, to the aged care crisis, to medevac. This mob has no heart.”
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong said it was “a deal that dare not speak its name”.
“It appears there’s been a deal done to repeal medevac. Well the Australian people want to see the deal; this Senate wants to see the deal,” she said.
But it’s not the first time governments have entered into secret deals with the crossbench to secure contentious legislation. One of former Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine’s conditions when voting on the privatisation of Telstra was restrictions on the importation of RU486, the abortion pill.
One Nation senators Malcolm Roberts and Pauline Hanson also voted to repeal the medevac legislation.
Senator Hanson claimed asylum seekers were “swallowing stones” and injecting their genitals with palm oil to get evacuated.
“These people are not of good character. They’re rapists. These people are thugs. They don’t belong here in Australia,” Senator Hanson said.
“We will be supporting this bill very, very strongly.”