asylum seekers Kerryn Phelps
Kerryn Phelps, Julia Banks, Rebekha Sharkie and Cathy McGowan during question time (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch/Crikey)

Scott Morrison’s ongoing attempts to take some of the sting out of the asylum seeker debate continue. While quibbling over the details, the Prime Minister has conceded a key demand in Kerryn Phelps’ Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill, which would allow an independent panel of doctors to review Home Affairs’ decisions over asylum seeker medivacs.

This shows the government is seriously considering the prospect of a potentially historic loss in parliament next week; a loss that could trigger a vote of no-confidence and a snap election. It goes without saying that the crossbenchers’ decisions could be hugely consequential. But where exactly do they stand?

Cathy McGowan

McGowan, who is retiring at the coming election, seems to be the government’s best bet of getting an independent to break ranks and oppose the bill. She has been non-committal about the bill, repeatedly saying she will reserve her judgement until it comes to the vote. Tellingly, she has asked her constituents what they think she should do. 

Kerryn Phelps

The architect of government woes (in more ways than one), Phelps has today labelled Morrison’s concession as “a recognition that the system is broken”. She told Fran Kelly on ABC RN that it was “very important” that the government has proposed the involvement of medical practitioners, but said “it’s not going to solve the problem because we still have bureaucrats making the decision”. “[We need to] take medical decisions out of the hands of bureaucrats and politicians — with appropriate ministerial oversight on national security grounds”.

Phelps has taken a similar view on yesterday’s news about the remaining children on Nauru preparing to leave for the US — saying it was “absolutely fantastic”  — but it was “nowhere near enough”. She noted the “dire reports” about mental health issues afflicting the hundreds of people still on Manus and Nauru — indeed, it’s been reported that suicide attempts are a daily occurrence on Manus.

Andrew Wilkie

Wilkie previously introduced the Refugee Protection Bill — aimed at a more long-term solution to Australia’s asylum seeker problems, which was seconded by McGowan — before the issue of urgent medical evacuations pulled focus. He supports (and co-sponsored) the bill.

Bob Katter

Katter is the only crossbencher to unequivocally say he won’t support the bill, based on his demonstrably incorrect assertion that “these people are not refugees”. He told Sky last year:

If you leave a country on this side of the globe and go right around the globe to this side of the globe, get past 20 countries in the process, you are not a refugee — you’re not fleeing from, you are going to. They are choosing the country they want to go to.

Julia Banks

Newly minted crossbencher Julia Banks has long been both a private and public critic of the government’s asylum seeker policy. Days before she quit the Liberals, she gave a speech criticising both sides  for “playing politics” on the issue. She has, along with Wilkie, co-sponsored Phelps’ bill, as have the remainder of the crossbench, Greens’ Adam Bandt and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie. Phelps said today that she had not gotten any sense that Banks’ support on the crossbench had faded. 

Even with the whole crossbench and Labor on board, Phelps needs the support of at least one government MP to get her legislation through the lower house. Labor, despite completely dropping the ball last year, support the bill.

Given Katter’s stated position, Phelps might need two government MPs. Either way, it may be worth keeping an eye on Banks’ ally Craig Laundy, who may have no future in the Liberal Party to protect, and long-term Liberal Party refugee advocate Russell Broadbent.

Peter Fray

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