Junk Explained: Here’s Why The Government Is Terrified About New Asylum Seeker Laws

Today's vote could save asylum seekers and humiliate the government, if Labor manages to not back down.

Phelps Medivac bill

Parliament’s finally back for 2019, and today’s shaping up to be a pretty historic day. This afternoon, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that has the potential to give asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru the access to medical care they’ve sorely needed for years now.

If the bill passes, it’ll clear the way for hundreds of people detained on Manus and Nauru to be transferred to Australia for medical care. It will also be a historic loss for the government (like, a once-in-ninety-years kind of loss). If the bill fails, it will be a tragedy for human rights, and there will likely be more preventable deaths in offshore detention.

All week MPs, doctors and asylum seeker advocates have been discussing the bill, but there’s been a lot of misinformation floating around. Here’s what you need to know before this afternoon’s vote:

What Is The Phelps “Medivac” Bill All About?

The bill in question has a few names — you might have seen it mentioned as the “Phelps bill”, the “Medivac” (or “medical evacuation”) bill, or the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018. It was introduced late last year by Independent MP Kerryn Phelps, the doctor who won Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth.

Basically, the legislation aims to make sure asylum seekers detained on Manus and Nauru are being evacuated to Australia for medical care when they need it. Under the bill, all children currently in offshore detention, along with their families, would be temporarily transferred to Australia for medical assessments.

The bill would also require the government to transfer any person in offshore detention to Australia for medical treatment if two doctors recommended doing so. Currently, the government will only consider a medical transfer if the person in question is facing a “life-threatening medical emergency that would otherwise result in their death or permanent, significant disability”, according to documents uncovered by BuzzFeed.

The bill has the support of peak medical bodies like the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and refugee advocacy groups like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. At the moment, Labor and most of the cross-bench support the bill, pending a few amendments. The Coalition government doesn’t like it, but that may not end up mattering seeing as it no longer has the numbers to block it.

Why Is The Government So Panicked? Apart From Hating Asylum Seekers, That Is.

Unsurprisingly, the government is not at all keen on this bill. But even for a government with a well-demonstrated preference for locking up asylum seekers in offshore detention, the reaction has been pretty extreme. I mean, Scott Morrison was out on Sky News just last week calling the proposed legislation a “stupid bill”. What’s that about?

It turns out that this bill is accidentally about way more than just asylum seekers. It’s about something the government actually cares about: getting re-elected.

That’s because if this bill passes, the government will have lost a vote on legislation in the House of Representatives, which is super rare. You might remember the government being worried about losing a similar vote back in December, which led to MPs wasting time until the end of the parliamentary year so they didn’t have to actually vote on it.

The government’s so scared of losing these votes because it basically shows that they’ve lost control — last time it happened (way back in 1929), the Prime Minister just threw in the towel and called an election the next day. Scott Morrison has insisted that he won’t be calling an early election, but a loss would still look really bad for the Coalition.

Officially, of course, the government says it’s concerned for other reasons, related to border security. These reasons haven’t really stacked up logically — see the below video of Christopher Pyne, for instance, trying to argue that the bill’s a bad idea because every single asylum seeker on Manus and Nauru would have to be transferred to Australia.

“Wait a minute, so they’re all ill?” Insiders journalist Barrie Cassidy responded. “You’re suggesting that almost all of them are ill?”

Pyne quickly tried to backtrack, saying that “the bottom line is that we’re not prepared to weaken border protection.”

“No, that’s not the point,” Cassidy responded. “Can you explain to me how it’s got to the point where almost all of them are ill?” Pyne cannot, and instead continues to rant about strong borders. You can watch the full video below.

So What’s All This Chatter About Labor Backing Down Then?

Given that the government’s in such a tight position on this one, it’s a bit strange to hear reports that Labor’s considering backing down or coming to a compromise. Unfortunately, they are.

Over the past couple of days, Bill Shorten’s been using language suggesting things like “compromise” and “amendments”, and last night Labor decided that it wants to seek three amendments before voting for the bill. Basically, Labor wants to give the home affairs minister a little more power to refuse medical transfers, making the decision-making timeframe more flexible, and ensuring that the bill only applies to people currently detained on Manus and Nauru.

Labor has described these amendments as an attempt to come to a compromise or “middle ground”, and Phelps has said she’ll look at those amendments so long as they don’t get in the way of getting asylum seekers the medical care they need.

The problem is that the Coalition has flat-out said they won’t compromise on this bill and aren’t interested in a middle ground, which means that Labor’s proposed amendments could just totally kill the bill, delivering the Coalition a win and leaving asylum seekers without medical care. The Greens have already said they won’t support Labor’s amendments, which likely means that unless Labor’s willing to pass the bill without them, the bill won’t pass.

Kerryn Phelps, for one, is urging Labor not to back down following the government’s “scare tactics and deliberate misinformation”. So is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which is urging everyone who supports the bill to call Bill Shorten’s office ASAP to tell him to stand firm and support the bill. It’s worth calling your local Labor MPs too, for what it’s worth.

Otherwise, all we can do is wait and hope that when the bill’s debated in Parliament this afternoon, a majority of MPs do the right thing and support it.