The 2019 budget papers have revealed it will cost $185 million to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre — not the $1.4 billion announced by prime minister Scott Morrison earlier this year.
The government also intends to repeal refugee medical transfer legislation and reshutter the Christmas Island centre by the middle of the year if it is re-elected in May.
In February Labor, Greens and crossbench politicians teamed up to pass the “Medevac Bill”, which was aimed at making it easier for sick refugees detained on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to travel to Australia for medical treatment.
Following the embarrassing defeat on the floor of the House of Representatives, the first time in decades a government had lost a vote on a piece of substantive legislation, Morrison announced he would reopen the detention centre on Christmas Island and send sick refugees there instead of the Australian mainland — a plan that provoked ire among advocates.
He also said reopening the centre would come with a $1.4 billion price tag. In budget lockup, a Home Affairs official told BuzzFeed News the department did not provide that figure and was not responsible for it.
Questioned on the discrepancy, finance minister Mathias Cormann said the “earlier talk” was based on advice from intelligence agencies and the government’s previous experience.
“What is reflected in the budget is our decision that, should we be successful at the election, we will reverse that legislation which means we will be able to close Christmas Island again, as we have closed Christmas Island before,” Cormann added.
Labor has been critical of the plan to send refugees who are transferred to Australia for medical reasons to Christmas Island.
The $185 million includes $178.9 million to manage transfers of detainees from Nauru and Manus to Christmas Island and vice versa, as well as $3.2 million to increase the Australian Federal Police’s presence on Christmas Island and $3 million to “reinforce” the Operation Sovereign Borders offshore communications campaign.
Contained within those numbers is $11 million in capital works to reopen the centre, including spending on medical equipment, minor works to ensure buildings can be utilised, and ICT upgrades required to manage the caseload.
$106 million will be spent on garrison, including medical and detention centre staff, food, and other services.
The spending, most of which falls in the 2018-19 financial year, is predicated on the government being re-elected in May, commanding a majority in the House, repealing the legislation, and shutting the centre by mid-year.
After July 1, 2019 the government intends the centre to return to contingency status, meaning it has to be able to accommodate 50 people at basic functionality within 72 hours, and fully operational within six weeks.
Most of the $185 million is earmarked to be spent in the current financial year, but it also includes $23.7 million for keeping the centre in contingency during 2019-2020.
The budget also contains $8 million for the operation of an independent medical panel as set up under the Medevac bill.
The legislation states that two doctors can request a sick refugee be transferred, but if the minister disagrees, the decision goes to the medical panel.
A department official said panel members would not be remunerated, and the $8 million would largely be spent on travel reimbursements and departmental administrative costs.