For all the sound and fury in parliament, late changes mean the contentious medivac bill does not threaten the minority government’s control of the nation’s money supply, or its borders.
This avoided the potential for a complex battle between houses of parliament and arms of government, and the possibility of an early election over the bill, as constitutional law guru Anne Twomey explains.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison now says he must rally the troops still under his command to respond to a supposed threat, which he attributes not to the actual legal effect of the amendments that were passed this morning, but to the way people smugglers might misinterpret them.
Facing the press today, Morrison maintained a contradictory message, blending an air of indifference to his weak parliamentary position with extreme alarm at supposedly dire threats to national security and community safety presented by the legislative change.
Based on the content of the legislation, as passed, the government is overstating those threats, with border security now clearly an election issue.
Without enough support in parliament for its hardline stance, the government now says it is doing everything it can to strengthen the hand of the public sector agencies involved in intercepting asylum seekers at sea, towing their boats away from the Australian mainland, and transferring their occupants to islands for processing.
To that end, the PM announced he would reopen “detention facilities and a series of compounds” on Christmas Island for “transfers” and new arrivals, arguing that more asylum seeker boats were likely to attempt the journey because people smugglers would think the rules had softened.
This would be completely wrong; the changes create no new incentive to attempt to reach Australia by boat and claim asylum. A better chance of medical treatment in Australia — without the government fighting it tooth and nail in the courts as it has done in the past – will only be for people who are currently on Manus Island and Nauru.
Last-minute changes also give the Minister for Home Affairs more legal discretion to block medical transfers of people with serious criminal records, not just those who are classified as threats to national security, and three days to make a decision rather than 24 hours as originally proposed.
But the PM argued the actual effect of the legislation was merely a “nuance of the Canberra bubble” and what was more important was his opinion – possibly based to some extent on confidential advice from the public service – about how people smugglers might incorrectly interpret the parliament’s move against the wishes of the executive.
“They deal with the psychology of messagings of whether things are stronger or whether things are weaker,” he said.
“It might be all fine and nice to talk about these nuances here in this courtyard, but when you’re in a village in Indonesia and someone’s selling you a product, there’s no … protections or truth-in-advertising laws for people smugglers.”
Morrison said he was giving the Defence, security and border protection agencies involved in Operation Sovereign Borders “everything they are asking for” after taking advice from their senior officials on the potential consequences of the medivac bill.
“I want to stress that all of the actions and decisions that we are taking are implementing the recommendations of these agencies and the officials as presented to us this morning,” he said.
“We are adopting all of the recommendations they have put, based on their advice, in response to the decisions that are being taken in the Australian parliament. We’re implementing them all, 100%.
“Everything they are asking for, they are getting.”
This would be “across a whole range of fronts” but the PM refused to go into details. He said he would also ask for an “implementation report” from the Department of Home Affairs before it gives effect to the amendments and take further decisions.
‘Misinformation and lies’, PM warns
The medical treatment available on Nauru was already suitable, he suggested, based on the quantity of medical staff available – without mentioning the facilities. There are over 60 “medical professionals” on Nauru, he said, or one for every seven people there, and one “mental health professional” for every 14.
These facts, he said, were in response to “a lot of misinformation and, frankly, lies” being spread about the state of medical services available to the people blocked from reaching Australia to seek asylum, in support of the parliamentary putsch to create a smother pathway for medical transfers from the islands where they are deposited.
The threat of an early election looks to have passed, although some pundits are speculating another trigger could emerge if the government loses a vote on whether to extend the truncated parliamentary sitting calendar, ostensibly to deal with the recommendations of the Hayne royal commission into the financial sector.
That depends on the North Queensland independent Bob Katter, who secured $200 million worth of spending on irrigation infrastructure for his electorate in exchange for his support in parliament in any divisions that might “cause disruption to the good order of the House” — but Katter has hinted he might be up for a game of chicken.
The PM said today he was doing all he could to hold on for a few more months.
“We’ll go to the election in May. I’m not going to be intimidated by the Labor party from handing down a surplus budget in April.”
Top image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch