A law that gave doctors greater say over the transfer of sick refugees to Australia to receive medical treatment has been abolished after the government struck a mysterious agreement to secure its repeal.
The Senate voted to repeal the so-called "medevac" law on Wednesday morning, amid disagreement over whether the government had made a deal to secure cross bench senator Jacqui Lambie’s support.
The repeal vote was the culmination of a year-long political fight over who should make decisions when to transfer sick refugees to Australia. The medical care of refugees and asylum seekers has become a central political issue in recent years, as a health crisis on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea has brewed. While healthcare in those island nations is limited, for years a hardline government policy banned them from entering Australia under all but the most extreme circumstances.
The government has insisted the medevac law undermined Australia's national security. Mathias Cormann, the government leader in the Senate, was clear on Wednesday morning that it had not changed detention policy to secure Lambie's support. “There is no secret deal,” he said.
But in an emotional address delivered moments later, Lambie suggested she had secured concessions from the government in exchange for her support for the repeal bill.
Speaking through tears, Jacqui Lambie said she could not reveal the details of the deal for national security reasons.
Medevac was not as flawed as the government claimed, but nor was it as effective as its supporters claimed, she said.
Final decisions should not be made by unelected doctors, Lambie said. She argued the system had flaws that would not be fixed by amendments.
But Lambie also said Australia could not return to the refugee health system it had before medevac came into effect.
It had earlier been reported that Lambie had asked the government to accept New Zealand's longstanding offer to resettle refugees held offshore, in exchange for her vote.
A spokesperson for New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern told BuzzFeed News the New Zealand government's offer remains on the table. "Any decision around deals in the Australian Senate are a domestic matter for Australia," the spokesperson said.
Shamindan Kanapadhi, a Sri Lankan refugee held in Papua New Guinea since October 2013, told BuzzFeed News the men in Port Moresby were "really devastated" to hear of the repeal.
"We are really fearful about what will happen for those who are severely sick," he said. "Medevac was the only option that gave sick refugees and asylum seekers access to the proper treatment that they have desperately needed for past six years."
International medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said the repeal would endanger patients and ignores medical ethics.
The organisation's Australian executive director Paul McPhun warned that "all eyes" would now be on the situation on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
"Asylum seekers and refugees who remain indefinitely contained on Nauru and PNG have been blocked again from accessing treatment for critical health conditions where adequate care is not available locally,” said McPhun in a statement.
Speaking in the Senate, Lambie criticised reports that people were coming to Australia to be treated for minor ailments, which had been cited by government members arguing for repeal earlier in the second reading debate.
Lambie said it had been difficult to reach a decision on the repeal, and apologised for how long it had taken her.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale seized on the apparent discrepancy between Cormann and Lambie's characterisation of the negotiations that led Lambie to agree to vote for the repeal.
He claimed he overheard Cormann ask Lambie in the chamber if it was “OK” for him to say there was no deal.
“Someone is misleading the Senate about one of the most important pieces of legislation that has been before this parliament,” he said.
Labor and Greens politicians had earlier criticised the government for failing to reveal the details of any deal it had struck with Lambie, likening the government members voting on the bill without knowing the details to lemmings.
Labor attempted to delay the vote until details of the deal had been tabled. The motion failed.
Senators voted on the repeal bill after the government suddenly curtailed the debate on Wednesday morning. The debate had kicked off on Monday.
The bill passed the House of Representatives in July 2019.
Medevac commenced in March. While in force, it brought over 100 people to Australia for treatment and assessment they were not able to access in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.