Scott Morrison raises prospect of asylum seeker transfer to New Zealand

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 16, 2018. AAP/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

CANBERRA, 17 OCTOBER 2018 (THE GUARDIAN) — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put the prospect of asylum seekers being resettled in New Zealand on the table, but only if the government can secure the passage of legislation intended to ensure there is no backdoor entry to Australia.

The prime minister is facing rising internal pressure over deteriorating conditions on Nauru, with the welfare of asylum seekers a significant negative for the Liberals in the looming Wentworth byelection, and with four government MPs now lobbying to get long-term detainees out of offshore detention.

Bill Shorten is facing similar internal pressure, and on Tuesday pledged to introduce a private member’s bill designed to improve the process of medical transfers from Nauru. It followed a sustained debate in the caucus where several MPs argued more expeditious transfers off the island was only the first step.

Shorten has written to Morrison, urging him to take up Labor’s revised medical transfer procedures because they were about making sure “vulnerable and sick children in Australia’s care can receive the medical treatment they need – when and where they need it”.

In the government party room, Liberal Trent Zimmerman raised the prospect of resettlement in New Zealand, and Morrison flagged reviving shelved legislation imposing a lifetime ban on asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever being allowed into Australia as a precursor to pursuing resettlement options.

The prime minister pointed to the legislation – first introduced a year ago – on Monday in response to a question from the Victorian independent, Cathy McGowan, and again on Tuesday when he urged Labor and the Senate crossbenchers “to reconsider their opposition to the bill”.

The government has signalled it is prepared to bring the shelved legislation on for urgent consideration in the Senate this week if the numbers are there to pass it.

But Labor has rebuffed the overture if the legislation is represented in its current form. A spokesman for Shorten told Guardian Australia the opposition would not support the government’s proposal.

The Labor spokesman said if Morrison wanted to pursue a resettlement deal with New Zealand, then he could pursue a bilateral agreement like the one Malcolm Turnbull struck with Barack Obama for refugee resettlement in the United States.

Labor’s immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann said the government’s proposal would permanently exclude any person who travelled to Australia by means other than the normal channels for immigration, including by boat, from ever entering Australia.

“The legislation is a ridiculous overreach and is irrelevant to securing third country resettlement arrangements and Labor does not agree to the legislation in its current form,” Neumann said.

“Scott Morrison has not explained why these laws are required for a resettlement deal with New Zealand and the Liberals have not reached out to Labor to give an assurance of any such deal”.

Shorten said in his letter to Morrison that Labor would support the government if they sought a bilateral negotiation with New Zealand dealing with refugee resettlement.

As part of a flurry of activity inside parliament on Tuesday, with refugee advocates lobbying furiously in the countdown to the Wentworth contest, the four lower house crossbenchers – Cathy McGowan, Rebekha Sharkie, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt – also met the immigration minister David Coleman in an effort to press the case that children needed to be removed from Nauru.

New Zealand has made a longstanding offer to Australia to take 150 refugees from Nauru. On Tuesday the NZ minister of immigration, Iain Lees-Galloway, reiterated: “Our offer still stands. Who Australia allows across their borders is a matter for the Australian government.”

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