Labor and the cross-bench found sufficient common ground to achieve a significant victory for decency and humanitarian values in the Australian Parliament yesterday. The medical evacuation amendment was further amended and then passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 75-74. It was also an historic victory in that it is the first time in 75 years that a Government has lost a substantive vote in the lower house.
This was achieved in the face of an extraordinary and increasingly desperate onslaught by the Government.
The saga is however ongoing. The Bill must return to the Senate today. It’s passage there is not guaranteed. The Government may repeat its December tactics and filibuster to block its consideration. Derryn Hinch is reported as ‘considering his position’ on the amendments. His vote is crucial.
It will be another tense day for supporters of the amendment.
The positives so far
Under extreme pressure the cross bench and Labor were sufficiently sure-footed to negotiate a workable amendment.
The agreed amendment remains strong enough to achieve speedy medical evacuation for those requiring urgent medical care which cannot be provided in Manus or Nauru – albeit with several caveats.
The amendment addresses the central scare-mongering Government claim- a renewed wave of asylum seeker boats – by restricting the provisions to persons on Manus and Nauru at the commencement of the legislation.
Tony Smith brought some dignity and propriety to the house and enhanced his status as a fair and non-partisan speaker by refusing what reads like an instruction from the Attorney General Christian Porter to block discussion of the amendment on constitutional grounds and by making this ‘instruction’- and the underpinning advice from the solicitor general - public despite a specific request from the AG to keep it private.
Minister Dutton retains greater discretionary power to exercise his veto on medical transfers than initially proposed in the cross-bench amendment which leaves open the possibility of misuse/abuse of the provisions.
The restriction of the provisions to only those detained at the commencement of the legislation leaves an obvious future problem if we continue with off- shore processing of asylum seekers.
We are also left with an ethical/moral issue in relation to those who will be excluded from the new provisions because they are deemed a threat to national security and have committed serious crimes. Do we think it is acceptable to allow them to die or suffer from serious illness?
Desperate government tactics
The Government ran an all-out attack on the amendment (in fact on any amendment to the existing legislation) and on Labor yesterday. There was little or no mention of the cross-benchers who were the initiators of the amendment. Though we are all familiar with disregard for truth or logic in parliamentary debates, the Government pushed the boundaries on such behaviour yesterday. Their tactics seemed to be driven both by increasing desperation about losing the vote and ‘smart’ forward thinking about effective election tactics.
As the commentators say, we are getting a preview of the pivotal role border protection will have in the forthcoming election- if the Government has its way.
The surprise of the day was the revelation by the speaker at the end of question time that he was in receipt of a letter from the AG - including advice from the solicitor general that there was an argument that the underlying amendment passed in December 2018 was unconstitutional and that the AG considered that on these grounds the speaker should not allow the amendment to be considered at this stage. And that he should keep the advice private.
The speaker’s calm rejection of both these requests was a high point in the parliamentary day.