Canberra, Feb 12 (IANS) The Australian government on Tuesday lost a major vote on a bill to help evacuate critically ill refugees from offshore processing centres to get treatment in the country, in a major blow to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s minority government’s highly controversial immigration policy.
The ruling Liberal National coalition was firmly opposed to the legislation, which it said would endanger national security, but it passed Australia’s lower house by a vote of 75 to 74. Morrison had said that the bill would “take control from the government” and “unleash a world of woe”.
The opposition Labour Party and a group of independent MPs supported the legislation. It is the first time an Australian government has lost a substantive vote in the House of Representatives since 1929, the Parliament’s website stated.
Under the legislation, asylum seekers detained on Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres can more easily be evacuated to the mainland for medical assistance if they become critically ill, the BBC reported.
Since 2013, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Critics say it has harmed the welfare of detainees, including children.
Doctors have long warned of inadequate medical facilities on the islands, while the UN has previously described the camp conditions as “inhumane”.
“There is no form of this bill that does not weaken our border protection,” Morrison said, adding that it could help criminals and terrorists enter the country.
Australia has long defended its offshore detention policy by arguing that it stops deaths at sea and disrupts the trade of people smuggling.
The bill is expected to sail through the Senate later this week where it will become law. The legislation seeks to provide more power to medical professionals in deciding whether to transfer detained refugees in need of medical attention to Australia.
It also permits the Home Affairs minister to reject transfers on national security grounds or in the case of patients with substantial criminal records deemed to pose a risk to the Australian community.
The minister will have up to 72 hours to decide whether to agree or reject the transfer after it is approved. If it is refused, the decision would be referred to the eight-member Independent Health Advice Panel.
The Prime Minister’s government had tried to gather last-minute support against the bill by presenting the argument of Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, who considered it to be unconstitutional.
In 2012, Australia resumed its policy of detaining undocumented immigrants in third countries. Under the widely criticised government migration policy, asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by sea are blocked from entering the country and sent to offshore processing centres.
The conditions under which these migrants are held have been repeatedly denounced by international organisations, including the UN.