Australia

NZ resettlement deal speculation mounts following medevac's repeal in Senate

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Scott Morrison has denied a "secret deal" with Jacqui Lambie over resettling refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to New Zealand to secure the repeal of medevac laws.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has downplayed mounting speculation the repeal of medevac laws has opened the door for a deal to resettle refugees from offshore detention.

Nine Media newspapers are reporting a letter Mr Morrison sent to independent Senator Jacqui Lambie privately assured her of plans to remove asylum seekers from Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate on the Medevac Bill in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra.
Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate on the Medevac Bill in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

The Tasmanian senator sided with the Coalition to repeal medevac on Wednesday with her deciding vote helping them fulfil their pledge to tighten government controls on the medical transfers.

Mr Morrison said his government is “always looking at ways” to resettle those in offshore detention, but denied a "secret deal" over New Zealand resettlement.

"We have always been very aware of the New Zealand government’s offer," he said on Thursday. 

"The government will continue to implement our policies as we’ve set them out and as we’ve decided to do as a government."

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

The so-called medevac program, which allowed people in offshore detention to be transferred on the recommendation of two independent doctors passed against the Coalition’s wishes in February.

But the Morrison government argued the laws created a “backdoor” to Australia and existing provisions on medical transfers were adequate for ensuring treatment.

According to unnamed sources, Mr Morrison wrote to Senator Lambie following negotiations with her over accepting a longstanding offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees held offshore.

Mr Morrison said there had been no deal with the senator to get her deciding vote after the repeal went ahead.

“The government's policy is to ensure that we seek to resettle people who are on Nauru,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“We will continue to use the arrangements that we have in place to be able to resettle people and that is the assurance that we have provided."

Any assurance from Mr Morrison to Senator Lambie could pave the way for the New Zealand resettlement option.

But while the NZ government says its offer remains on the table it has had no talks with Australia.

Labor’s home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally told reporters on Wednesday the Morrison government should disclose if any new resettlement deal has been reached.

“If the prime minister has done a backflip if he has decided to accept New Zealand’s offer to take refugees on Manus and Nauru that is a change in policy,” she said on Wednesday.

She said Labor would support such an agreement with New Zealand.

“The public has a right to know … he should announce it to the Australian people.”

Earlier in the Senate, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said there was "no secret deal" with Senator Lambie.

Prior to the vote, Senator Lambie became emotional as she explained the reason for her decision, citing national security grounds for her confidential negotiations.

Senator Lambie broke into tears in the Senate as she explained the reason for her decision.
Senator Lambie broke into tears in the Senate as she explained the reason for her decision.
AAP

“I’m not being coy or silly when I say I genuinely can’t say what I proposed,” she told the Senate.

“I know that’s frustrating to people and I get that – I don’t like holding things back like this but when I say I can’t discuss this publicly because of national security I am being 100 per cent honest to you.”

The number of refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus island reached 2,450 people in April 2014.

But this has since been reduced to around 466 people including 208 on Papua New Guinea and 258 on Nauru.

Under an existing US resettlement deal, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said 654 people had been settled from Nauru and Manus Island.

He said another 251 had gained “provisional approval” to travel to the United States and through medevac 21 of those were approved for transfer to Australia.

There were 57 people not approved to travel to the US transferred to Australia under medevac.

"This was always a law that was always about getting people here through the back door and today we've closed that back door," he said on Wednesday.

Crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie (right) speaks with the Leader of the Government in the Senate Mathias Cormann.
Crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie (right) speaks with the Leader of the Government in the Senate Mathias Cormann.
AAP

During medevac's time, more than 180 people were transferred to Australia from Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Supporters of the regime are concerned repealing the laws could result in poorer treatment outcomes for those in offshore detention, including Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone.

“I’m not worried about the politics of this issue, I’m worried about the people, the patients here at the centre of this system,” he told the National Press Club.

With additional reporting from AAP.

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