(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

As three-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan lay in a hospital bed with sepsis and pneumonia, her family hoped it might be enough to spur a bit of compassion in Canberra, and bring an end to their more than 1000 days in immigration detention.

This morning, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews tried to put the genie in the bottle — after days of talk about overseas resettlement, she returned to the Coalition’s familiar terrain of stopping the boats.

“Quite frankly, I am not going to have people dying trying to come to Australia by sea on my watch,” she said, after Sunrise’s David Koch asked why the government was “being so mean” to the family.

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You lose Sunrise, you lose the country. The “Biloela family” provided a human face to Australia’s stagnant refugee debate, so long dominated by scary images of people smugglers and deaths at sea. Beloved by their local community in the central Queensland mining town, their case has attracted sympathy from across the political spectrum. And now, there’s a growing sense of disquiet among Coalition ranks about the family’s plight.

Is there a softening afoot?

All week, there’s been enough of a collective hum coming from the Coalition ranks — a mixture of rumour, anonymous “concerned” MPs, and backgrounding — to suggest there may be a resolution to the family’s ordeal.

From Coalition MPs, the public messaging has been contradictory — a reflection, perhaps, of the government’s own internal conflict over the family’s fate. On Tuesday, Andrews said the government was “going through a process of investigating a range of resettlement options”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison immediately interjected to say that process applied to all cohorts, not specifically the Biloela family.

That afternoon, Foreign Minister Marise Payne suggested the government was looking at resettlement options in New Zealand or the United States. That was news to the family’s lawyers. It was also news to New Zealand, with Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi saying Australia had never approached New Zealand about the resettlement plan.

By Wednesday, Liberal MPs were privately pushing the government to do something for the family. But the backlash had also started. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash warned about the “consequences of blinking”, arguing people smugglers were watching the government like hawks waiting for a sign of compassion.

This morning, Andrews confirmed the family would not have access to resettlement in New Zealand, and continued to double down on the government’s old messaging about stopping the boats.

Will a minister, or politics help?

Andrews, along with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, can intervene at any time and allow the family to return to Biloela. But the home affairs minister appears to have nailed her colours to the mast this morning.

That leaves Hawke, who is currently reviewing two briefs he must consider before deciding whether to lift the bar and allow them to apply for a visa. It’s unclear where Hawke will land here, and when. As assistant home affairs minister in the Turnbull government he was something of a hardliner — now he has four children under six, and there’s hope that could spur him to change the government’s mind.

Meanwhile, there’s politics to factor in too. The Murugappan family has support from people like Alan Jones. Keeping them on Christmas Island has cost the government over $6 million. And Biloela is in Flynn, a Central Queensland seat Labor has in its sights. Ken O’Dowd, the popular local LNP member is resigning. He too has offered his support to the family.

Tharnicaa’s medical evacuation underscores the lack of quality care in detention, and makes the case for keeping them on Christmas Island while their court cases progress seem absurd. But if anything forces the government to change its mind, it may just be that the politics of locking them up no longer make sense.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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