Peter Dutton tries to woo Jacqui Lambie over medevac regime

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Peter Dutton has made a direct appeal to senator Jacqui Lambie to repeal the medevac regime, by claiming the government is redoubling efforts to resettle asylum seekers in the United States.

The home affairs minister told Sky News on Tuesday he expects the United States to take a further 250 people as part of its refugee swap deal with Australia.

The appeal addresses a key concern of Lambie – who has the swing vote and is concerned about people languishing in detention – by suggesting half the people still left in detention can go to the US.

Dutton also told Sky News that six people who he claims are of bad character have been brought to Australia under the medevac provisions. At first he said they were not in detention before backing down and saying they “may well” be, before finally conceding that he did not know.

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On Friday the government-controlled Senate committee examining medevac provisions recommended they be repealed, despite only the home affairs department calling for the repeal which is opposed by medical practitioners and human rights groups.

All eyes are now on Lambie, who could join with Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance to block the bill but who has expressed concerns about instability in Syria leading to more asylum seekers coming to Australia.

On Monday, Senate estimates hearings revealed that 632 refugees have gone to the US under a refugee swap deal that was structured to allow “up to 1,250” to go, subject to “extreme vetting”.

Asked if more would go to the US, Dutton replied: “I think we will get … somewhere in the order of 250 more will go to the US.”

Dutton boasted that just four people remain on Manus Island involuntarily in addition to a “handful” who are in relationships or have local businesses and want to stay.

“The fact we have now cleared the decks essentially on Manus Island, I think is a significant achievement and we’re down to less than 300 on Nauru and again I want to get that to zero as quickly as possible as well,” he told Sky News.

Dutton defended the $27m spent to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre, despite the fact only the Biloela family is kept there, explaining it was “part of the deterrent element when the medevac bill became a law”.

Dutton repeatedly described the medevac provisions as “a con”, citing the fact that just 13 of the people who have come to Australia have required hospitalisation – about 10% of the 132 who have come under medevac.

Dutton could not say how many of the 982 refugees and asylum seekers brought to Australia under pre-existing provisions had required hospitalisation.

He claimed Australia had brought people for medical attention before medevac, despite the Australian Human Rights Commission submission that 60% of those in 2018-19 were brought only due to actual or threatened litigation.

The medevac provisions – passed in the last parliament by Labor, the Greens and independents – gives clinicians a greater say in the medical transfers of asylum seekers by creating a specialist medical panel to approve transfers under advice from doctors rather than government officials.

Although the provisions allow the minister to refuse medical evacuations on national security grounds, Dutton argued they confer a “right for people of bad character to come here”.

Related: Dutton uses medevac law to refuse transfer despite claiming it could not be done

Dutton said that six people he judges to be of bad character have come to Australia, including one alleged to have been a member of the Iranian army, and others allegedly “involved” in prostitution and criminal syndicates. He did not specify their alleged involvement.

At first, Dutton said those six people are not in detention but when asked why not he suggested “some of them may well be in detention”.

Dutton said whether they are detained “depends if they have a medical condition” and noted the immigration minister, David Coleman, makes the decision.

Asked again if they have been detained, Dutton replied: “I don’t know, is the true answer to it, there’s thousands of cases and I just don’t have that in front of me.”

Dutton played down the significance of Labor’s new line of attack that 80,000 people have arrived by plane to claim asylum since 2014.

He said the number was “very small” in comparison to the millions of people who visit Australia, and the issue cannot be compared to arrivals by boat.