Parliament returns tomorrow for the first sitting week of 2019, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under pressure on multiple fronts.
The seven days of parliament scheduled for this fortnight are the last chance for the government to get anything done before the budget is handed down on April 2.
One of the big issues is asylum seekers.
Last time parliament met in December, the government ran out the clock to avoid an embarrassing defeat on the floor of the House.
It wanted to avoid voting on a bill which could lead to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru being transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
That bill will come before the House this week.
We are not talking about the legislation put forward by independent MP Kerryn Phelps. In fact, this is a government bill that was amended in the Senate with the support of Labor, the Greens and a number of crossbenchers.
Senior government figures have argued against the bill in its current state, claiming it would take the final call for medical transfers out of the minister’s hands and essentially allow a couple of doctors to make the decision on their own.
“Two doctors in Australia, maybe Bob Brown and Richard Di Natale, could sign a certificate saying that they think that they (the asylum seekers) are suffering from mental health issues and they need to come to Australia,” Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said yesterday.
Mr Pyne warned that about 1000 asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru could end up being transferred.
“People would come here in their hundreds from Nauru and Manus, on the recommendation of two doctors,” Peter Dutton said today.
“It’s a joke, it makes a mockery of the system.”
Here is what the legislation, in its current form, would actually do:
- Two treating doctors could recommend that an asylum seeker be transferred to Australia for medical reasons;
- The minister would then have 24 hours to either approve the transfer or veto it. He could refuse the transfer either because he didn’t believe it was medically necessary, or because he thought it would pose a security risk;
- If the minister were to refuse the transfer for the first reason, the case would then go to an independent panel of health experts, which could decide to overrule him.
“The borders won’t be in the hands of medical professionals,” the Australian Medical Association’s Federal Executive, Paul Bauert, said in Canberra this morning.
“Two independent doctors will make a decision in agreement that a particular individual does need to come to a situation where the facilities are better, more appropriate for their management.
“If the minister says he doesn’t agree with the medical decision, then it will then go to an independent committee, many of whom will have been selected by the minister himself.
“The minister still has complete control over that individual. They will be accompanied by armed guards. They will probably end up in a detention facility in Australia.
“He has complete control, when that medical treatment has finished, of sending those patients back to offshore detention.”
Dr Bauert dismissed the idea of 1000 people being transferred to the mainland as “pure politics”.
“One thousand people, that’s what’s been said, to me if 1000 people do come over the next three weeks it would suggest that they are all absolutely critically ill and need to be evacuated. I honestly don’t think that’s the case,” he said.
“To talk about 1000 people being here within three minutes is pure politics.
Mr Morrison isn’t the only one under pressure here. Labor has to decide whether it will support the bill in its current form.
Bill Shorten was briefed by the Department of Home Affairs this morning. His shadow ministry will meet this afternoon, and then at 6pm Labor’s full caucus will discuss its position.
We will learn the result tomorrow morning.
The opposition could end up supporting an amendment to the bill to ensure the minister the final say.