Morrison government suffers first defeat on legislation for 90 years as refugee bill passes

There are three types of vote losses a sitting government can face.

One type is procedural: if a government loses a vote on whether to debate a bill, or whether to suspend standing orders. The loss is often embarrassing, but does not significantly question the government’s core capacity to govern. The government has already lost a couple tonight — but no one really cares.

Another type is government-toppling: if a vote stops the government spending its own money, or explicitly suggests legislators have no confidence in it, there is precedent for the governor-general to call an election. Tonight’s bill, on the government’s legal advice, could enter this territory — and constitutional law expert Anne Twomey agreed. Labor put forward a last-minute amendment to stop the government from spending money with the bill, hoping to stymie any constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in his office in Canberra in the 1920s.

Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in his office in Canberra in the 1920s. Credit:H. H. Fishwick

The third type is little-explored: where the government fails on a substantive piece of legislation, but not one that spends money. It is more significant than a procedural loss, but less consequential than a vote of no confidence. And it’s likely what the government just experienced. The last time this happened was in 1929, when prime minister Stanley Bruce introduced a plan to give the government more power over industrial disputes.

Mr Bruce’s challengers wanted that plan to go to a referendum or general election, and their suggestion won majority support, 35 votes to 34.

Most other times governments have lost substantial votes — in 1904 (twice), 1905, 1908, 1909, 1931 and 1941 — they have been government-toppling votes on confidence or appropriations. After those votes, each government resigned.

The government has been defeated on the floor of the House, 75-74. 

The government has now lost four votes in a row. 

Labor has updated its amendments to the legislation and circulated them. 

This wording could be crucial in the constitutional debate. 

«(4) A person is not entitled to remuneration in respect of their position as a member of the panel.» 


Scott Morrison warns the proposed bill will see Australia’s offshore processing regime dismantled. 

«We implore this House not to undo what is not broken,» he says. «Even in opposition they seek to undo it again.» 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott MorrisonCredit:AAP

Leader of the House Christopher Pyne shouts at the Labor MPs opposite. 

He tells them the bill puts at stake what «the English fought a civil war over».  

The key debate here is whether the amendments proposed by the Senate are a «money bill» — that is they appropriate money from the budget. 

The House, as the representative of the people, is the only chamber supposed to appropriate money in Australia. 

The Senate, descended from the House of Lords in the UK, checks legislation, but does not appropriate money.  

The government’s argument is that the amendments proposed by the Senate effectively appropriate money because they will force the government to fund a panel of doctors. 

They are about to be voted on. 

The lower house is about to vote on a bill that would give doctors more sway on whether sick refugees on Nauru and Manus Island can come to Australia for medical treatment.

The past few days of negotiation has sought a middle ground on how much control doctors have over whether refugees receive mainland medical aid: the government wants the home affairs minister to have more power, and the crossbench want doctors to be front and centre.

To kick off the process, as the bill currently stands, any two doctors need to say they want a refugee to come to Australia for treatment. From there, the home affairs minister will have three days to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — or just 24 hours in urgent cases.

If the minister says ‘no’ because of national security concerns, or because the refugee has committed a serious crime, that is the end of the matter. If the minister says no for any other reason, the decision is then referred to an expert medical panel who has the final say.

The independent medical panel will consist of both the government’s and the Department of Home Affairs’ chief medical officers, the surgeon-general of the Australian Border Force, and at least six others including the Australian Medical Association president, a nominee of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, a nominee of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and at least one person with paediatric health expertise.

To give you a sense of how seriously the goverment views this situation, here are Attorney-General Christian Porter’s comments to the House an hour ago:  

«As a matter of policy principle we should not support these amendments because the risk in the practical, real world, is the consequences are enormous. 

But perhaps even more important than voting against the motion on that policy principle, is that if you vote against this motion, you would be voting against 109 years of House of Representatives practice. 

You would be voting against maintaining the central feature of responsible government: being that the power to manage public finance is the prerogative of the government formed in the House, and not the Senate.

You would be voting against a motion and putting us as Parliament and every one of us as parliamentarians in contempt of the Australian Constitution.» 

Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Attorney-General Christian Porter. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The government has lost a vote to put the amendments. Six crossbench members sitting in a row have sided with Labor. This is not a vote on the amendments themselves, just a vote to bring them to the House. 

Crossbench MPs Cathy McGowan, Adam Bandt and Rebekha Sharkie during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra

Crossbench MPs Cathy McGowan, Adam Bandt and Rebekha Sharkie during Question Time at Parliament House in CanberraCredit: Alex Ellinghausen




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