Senate threat to medical transfer bill puts heat on Labor

“What we’ve been seeing is a lot of discussion about the politics. And what we need to bring this back to is that this is about the lives of real human beings.


“We have a detention system that is inhumane, it’s cruel, it lacks accountability and it’s enormously expensive.”

Dr Phelps and other crossbench MPs are negotiating the wording of any amendments ahead of a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon on the bill passed by the Senate last December.

The bill would become law without another vote if it is approved by the House on Tuesday. If amended, however, it would have to go back to the Senate for approval.

While an alliance of Labor, the Greens and independent Senators could secure a majority in the upper house to force the medical transfer bill through, the Greens are concerned about any delaying tactics from the government.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann at Parliament House on Tuesday.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann at Parliament House on Tuesday. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, the government’s leader in the upper house, signalled a hard-line approach to the bill if it goes back to the Senate.

“We are doing whatever it takes to prevent this bill from becoming law and you will of course see how these processes are going to evolve over the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

“I know as is always the case in this place many people have made judgements about what they apparently know will happen, all I will say is ‘watch this space’.

“The government is unequivocally committed to protecting our borders. As we did before Christmas we will do everything we can to stop Bill Shorten from undermining our national security and our strong border protection arrangements.”

The Labor caucus agreed on Monday night to authorise negotiations on the crossbench bill to widen the definition of security in the bill to allow refugees to be rejected if they have a criminal history, to give the Immigration Minister more than 24 hours to decide transfers and to limit the rules to about 1,000 individuals currently on Nauru and Manus Island.

The bill is expected to come to a vote in the House after matters of public importance are debated after Question Time.

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, Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie as well as Dr Phelps.

If it is not decided on Tuesday, the crossbench may need to suspend standing orders on another day – a move that would require 76 votes and may be impossible.

The Greens are concerned about Senate delays and about the way the amendments give the Immigration Minister more discretion, which could force applications for medical transfers to go through the courts as they are today.

“On first look, Labor’s amendments don’t make the current terrible situation any better,” Mr Bandt said.

“Labor is giving a lot of power back to Peter Dutton and it’s not clear that sick refugees will come to Australia any quicker than they do now.”

Dr Phelps raised concerns about the definition of security and the character test when a criminal history was already grounds to reject an application for refugee status.

“We need to look at what the definition of serious crime is,” Dr Phelps told ABC TV.

“What I am very keen to do is to avoid being in exactly the same position we are in now where the minister excessive veto powers and runs every serious medical case through the courts, only to find that the doctor’s original recommendations were upheld.”

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

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