Australia’s conservative minority government has suffered a monumental political defeat after MPs voted on a bill that would allow refugees held in offshore facilities the right to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
The bill passed by a narrow 75-74 margin on Tuesday, making Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government the first administration in nearly a century to lose a vote on a major legislation, prompting calls for a snap election.
The bill will still have to pass through Australia’s upper Senate to become law.
Since 2012, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on Nauru and Manus islands after vowing anyone arriving by sea would not be allowed to settle.
Women, families and children have been held on Nauru, a tiny island country close to the equator where hot and humid temperatures prevail all year, while single men are kept on Manus, an island belonging to Papua New Guinea.
Successive Australian governments have supported the policy which they say is needed to stop people drowning at sea during dangerous boat journeys.
“The legislation Labor passed in the House of Representatives today ensures that people in Australia’s care can get urgent medical treatment when they need it,” Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition, said on Twitter.
“The Australian people understand our nation can be strong on borders and still treat people humanely. We can preserve our national security and still look after people to whom we owe a duty of care. This legislation gets that balance right.”
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised Australia for its hardline policy towards asylum seekers, with a 2014 report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission documenting serious levels of mental illness, trauma, depression, self-harm, sexual assault and suicide among asylum seekers.
At least five people have committed suicide on Nauru since 2013. Seven have died on Manus during the same period, but several more have attempted suicide.
“Today we saw politics at its best with MPs across the floor working together to ensure a humane solution,” said Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director with the Human Rights Law Centre.
“The current medical transfer system is broken. Condition of people needing urgent medical assistance have severely deteriorated and some have even died. Notably, the coroner found that the death of young man, Hamid Khazaei, was caused by medical failure and delays. We need to stop risking lives. We now call on the Senate to pass this bill as soon as possible.”
When the sitting government last lost a vote on substantive legislation in 1929, then Prime Minister Stanley Bruce immediately called an election which he lost.
Last week, Prime Minister Morrison ruled out calling a snap election if his government was defeated over the “stupid” bill.
His coalition has to call an election by May and has been trailing the opposition centre-left Labor Party in opinion polls.