Labor shadow cabinet signs off on modified refugee bill that could still pass Parliament

A second change would give the minister more time to respond to the recommendation of a medical panel on each transfer, increasing the timeframe from 24 hours in the current bill.

This responds to another criticism from the government, that the Immigration Minister would not have enough time to check the history of an applicant if every transfer had to be finalised within 24 hours.

A third amendment is to apply the medical transfer bill to the existing cohort of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, where about 1,000 people have waited for years to be transferred to third countries.

This amendment follows warnings from Immigration Minister David Coleman that the bill in its current form could allow all asylum seeker coming by boat to apply for urgent medical help in Australia as soon as they arrived, without going to the offshore detention centres.

Mr Shorten has cleared the proposals with shadow cabinet and will discuss them with the Labor caucus before a final decision when the bill comes to a vote around noon on Tuesday.

Some crossbench MPs are said to be «receptive» to Labor’s proposal, but some key MPs including independent Cathy McGowan are still on their way to Canberra and the plan is still to be cleared by Labor’s caucus.

Some crossbench MPs are said to be “receptive” to the proposals but negotiations are set to continue until Tuesday, when Parliament resumes on its first sitting day for the year.

The combined effect of the changes is to strengthen the discretion of the minister in terms of the grounds for refusal and the time needed for a decision, without weakening the right of doctors to recommend a transfer on medical grounds for those who raise no security concerns.

The medical transfer law began as an amendment in the Senate to a miscellaneous Home Affairs bill and secured a majority in the upper house last December, which means it will become law if passed by the House of Representatives.

The government will have little or no scope to delay it with further inquiry or procedural tactics, given the law would take effect by royal assent within a fortnight.

The bill will go to the House as a “message from the Senate” on Tuesday and is expected to come up between noon and Question Time at 2pm. The supporters of the bill will not need an absolute majority – that is, 76 of the 150 members of the lower house – to win the debate.

Labor has 69 members and is negotiating support for its changes from Greens MP Adam Bandt and independents Julia Banks, Cathy McGowan, Kerryn Phelps, Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie.

This bloc of 75 would be enough to pass the bill and make it law over the government’s objections.

Speculation about a Labor backdown on the bill provoked a warning from Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim on Monday before details of Mr Shorten’s proposals emerged.

“There is a massive physical and mental health crisis on Manus Island and Nauru and that’s been driven in large part because the minister has an over-ride,” he said.

The scope of the minister’s discretion to reject a medical transfer has become a key point of contention, but some within the Labor caucus believe some form of discretion must remain and that a Labor government would exercise it in a more humane way than Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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