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Scott Morrison suffers historic defeat as border protection election looms

14 February 2019
Scott Morrison suffers historic defeat as border protection election looms

Australia's government suffered an embarrassing defeat in parliament on Tuesday, as the lower house voted for a measure allowing asylum seekers to access medical care, the first such loss by a government in 78 years.

The ruling coalition lost its single-seat majority when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit politics after he was deposed by his party colleagues in August.

"We want strong borders", he said.

Independent MP Kerryn Phelps and Greens leader Richard Di Natale have also predicted several hundred asylum seekers could qualify for transfer and treatment.

"Votes will come and they will go, they do not trouble me", he said, adding that the outcome could not be "contorted" into a vote of no confidence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a security committee of his cabinet agreed to reopen the camp on the advice of senior security officials.

But the 75-74 vote - which came on the first sitting day of Parliament this year - in favour of the refugee Bill opposed by the government is a blow to the already embattled Prime Minister and raised questions about whether he can remain in office.

Mr Morrison warned the changes claimed to be humanitarian but would encourage people smugglers and risk more deaths at sea from asylum seeker boats.

In the wake of the parliamentary setback, Morrison refused calls to step down or call an early election, insisting that Australians would have time to make their choice in May.

What happened at Christmas Island previously?

The new law only applies to the 1,000 people now on Manus Island and Nauru but Mr Morrison hedged when asked to confirm this fact on Wednesday, saying people smugglers did not care about the "nuance" of the law. "This puts Australia back on the map for people smugglers and Bill Shorten has that on his shoulders".

"The one thing that has not changed is the fact that anyone who gets on a boat today, not one thing has changed for them".

The new law states that those who are transferred must be in detention but Labor argues this continues to allow the Immigration Minister to release them into community detention.

Medical evacuations have become a loophole in Australia's policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Operation Sovereign Borders and other parts of the government's border security operations will be beefed up, with more than $1.4 billion earmarked to be spent over four years.

"I'm not sure if it's going to have any great effect (on votes) but I do think it's a precursor to what the government's going to try and do in the election campaign".

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.