Scott Morrison has left the door open to accepting a New Zealand offer to take refugees from offshore detention, as he welcomes support from Jacqui Lambie to repeal the medevac laws.
While denying the government did a “secret deal” with the key crossbencher to win over her support in a crucial vote on Wednesday, Morrison said the government’s existing policies had convinced Lambie to support the repeal after she was provided with briefings from senior government officials.
When twice asked if the government’s existing policy included resettling refugees to New Zealand once the US resettlement deal was exhausted, Morrison said: “The government’s policy is to ensure that we seek to resettle people who are on Nauru.
“The government is always looking at ways in which it can resettle those who are on Nauru.
“So 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.”
New Zealand Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the “offer remains on the table,” but there had been no recent approach.
“It’s on the table and we’re happy to help if they want to take the offer up. We’ll wait and see.”
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said the medevac regime had undermined the government’s efforts to resettle refugees, saying it allowed a “back door” to Australia that removed an incentive for people to accept relocation to the US.
“Like Senator Lambie, like everybody, I don’t want people, the prime minister does not want any of these people on Manus or Nauru, and we worked day and night to clean up Labor’s mess to make sure that we get people off, and also at the same time not restart boats which is what happened under Labor.”
He said the medevac law was a “bad policy” that deserved to be voted out.
Ahead of the Senate vote on Wednesday, Lambie told parliament that she had made the “really hard decision” to support the legislation’s repeal because the government had agreed to an “outcome” that would improve medical treatment for refugees held in offshore detention.
She has refused to disclose details of the proposal she put to government, citing national security reasons.
“We’ve worked to an outcome I believe we both want, which is an outcome that our borders are secure, the boats have stopped and sick people aren’t dying waiting for treatment,” Lambie said. “And as a result of that work … I am more than satisfied that the conditions are now in place to allow medevac to be repealed.”
Advocate groups condemned the government’s decision to repeal the law, saying it was a “callous and vindictive” political move to end the medical evacuation system that had seen almost 200 people transferred to Australia for treatment.
“Today is a devastating day,” GetUp’s human rights director, Shen Narayanasamy, said. “What we’ve seen is medevac, a law that has saved lives, be ripped away.
“The Morrison government has chosen to deny sick people the right to medical care, against all expert medical advice.”
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone also criticised the decision.
“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.
In question time on Wednesday, Labor asked the government to reveal details of the agreement struck with Lambie.
Morrison told parliament that Lambie had not made any reference to a deal in her remarks to parliament, and denied there had been any special agreement.
“Senator Lambie is fully aware of the government’s policies, and is pleased with those policies, and today she has supported those policies,” Morrison said.
He then attacked the Labor party’s record on border protection, saying they had sent women and children to Manus Island.
“I will not take lectures from the Labor party that showed themselves to be the most outrageous treatment of women and children in sending them to Manus Island and then did nothing while we sought to stop the deaths at sea.”
Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, called on the government to release details of the undertakings it had given to Lambie.
“This is a sad day for democracy but, I have to say, I think it’s an incredibly sad day as well, for those people on Manus and Nauru, for those people in Papua New Guinea, those refugees and asylum seekers who need medical treatment,” Keneally said.
“We didn’t just put medevac through the parliament last year because we wanted to, we put it through because it was absolutely necessary to do so to ensure that sick people get to see a doctor and get the medical treatment they need.”
Australian Associated Press contributed to this report.