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13 Feb 2019

Australian doctors will have more say over decisions whether asylum seekers in offshore detention should come to Australia for medical treatment.

The Government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suffered a historic defeat, losing a vote in the House of Representatives on the medivac evacuation bill when Labor was joined by the Greens and independents to back giving doctors more power over the fates of refugees.

A day after the vote in the Lower House, the Government lost again on the same bill in the Senate.

The legislation will become law after it receives royal ascent by the Governor-General.

The AMA was in favour of the legislation and has led the campaign to have sick asylum seekers brought to Australia for treatment and to get children and their families off of detention in Nauru.

It has long called for doctors to be allowed on the island to assess and monitor the health of the asylum seekers.

The series of votes the Government lost in the House 74 to 75 amounted to allowing doctors to visit Manus Island and Nauru to conduct health checks on the asylum seekers already there and to recommend medical evacuations as they see necessary.

Two doctors must assess each person for medical or psychiatric condition. These assessments can be done remotely if required.

If the doctors recommend transferring an asylum seeker for treatment, the Home Affairs Minister must approve or refuse the transfer within 72 hours. A medical panel to be known as the Independent Health Advice Panel will reassess the situation if the Minister refuses, which can only be on grounds of an adverse security assessment or a substantial criminal record.   

A defeat on such a substantive bill has not been recorded on the floor of the House of Representatives since 1929.

Compounding the embarrassment was that the original bill came from the Government, which was aiming to shore up its own power over the health and fate of asylum seekers.

But Labor amended the bill, which became similar to that which was put forward by independent MP Kerryn Phelps, to hand much more control to doctors.

The voting result was immediately described by many as a de facto vote of no confidence in the Government because it has lost control of the House.

But Mr Morrison was not about to fall on his sword and call an immediate election – which is exactly what the Prime Minister in 1929 Stanley Bruce did after losing control.

Instead, Mr Morrison announced he would reopen detention facilities on Christmas Island in anticipation of a renewed push by people smugglers to bring asylum seekers to Australia.

The newly passed legislation specifically applies only to Nauru and Manus.

“We have approved putting in place the reopening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers,” the Prime Minister said.

“My job now is to do everything within my power, and the power of the Government, to ensure that what the Parliament has done to weaken our borders does not result in boats coming to Australia.”

A Federal election is expected in May.



Published: 13 Feb 2019