Labor has shifted its stance on the medical transfer bill, seeking agreement for three principles that might scuttle the proposal once it returns to the parliament, and allow Scott Morrison to claim a significant political victory.

At the end of a meeting of the shadow cabinet, the left and right factions, and the caucus, the ALP signalled it wanted to rework the proposal it supported in the parliament last December to increase the discretion of the home affairs minister to refuse medical transfers for asylum seekers, to make the timeframes for decision making less restrictive, and to ensure the procedures only applied to the cohort currently on Manus Island and Nauru.

The backflip, which had been telegraphed by Bill Shorten since the middle of last week, followed a substantial rhetorical bombardment – including misrepresentations about the detail of the legislation – by the Morrison government in an effort to avoid losing the first substantive vote in the House of Representatives since 1929.

With Labor locked in contested internal deliberations – with some MPs fearing the consequences of a prolonged, toxic debate on border protection, and others a progressive backlash to any about face by the opposition – Scott Morrison used an appearance at the National Press Club on Monday to ratchet up the political pressure.

The prime minister declared the opposition needed to scuttle the medical transfer bill if it was serious about protecting Australia’s borders.

Despite having flagged his own independent medical review panel just last week to vet medical transfers of asylum seekers from offshore detention in an effort to scuttle the crossbench proposal, and presided over the rapid removal of vulnerable children in response to internal pressure from government moderates, Morrison declared on Monday that as prime minister: “I’m not going to find some middle ground”.

Morrison said when it came to preventing deaths at sea, “you can’t split the difference”. The bill was “unnecessary, it is superfluous, it adds nothing to border protection – it only takes away”.

The Labor caucus met for close to two hours on Monday night, but after a day of meetings, and restiveness in the left caucus meeting, there wasn’t huge contention at the final deliberation.

Two leftwing frontbenchers, Pat Conroy and Andrew Giles, asked detailed questions about the implications of the proposed shift, including about adjustments to the timeframe for determinations, but accepted the logic of the amendments.

A caucus subcommittee will look at the final wording of any deal with the crossbench.

Labor has already made contact with key independents in an effort to ensure the legislation passes the parliament, and does not founder courtesy of Monday’s reposition.

The crossbench is due to meet in Canberra on Tuesday morning, and wants to see detailed language from Labor before deciding which way to go.

For procedural reasons, the legislation has to be dealt with on Tuesday, likely in the afternoon, after question time.

The changes proposed originally by independent Kerryn Phelps, and amended by the South Australian senator Tim Storer, with Labor’s backing last year, would have given doctors more say over the medical transfers of people in offshore detention.

The crossbench move followed escalating concern about the wellbeing of people in detention, particularly children, and a major mobilisation by the medical profession concerned about rising incidences of mental illness, self harm, and suicide.

The bill as currently drafted does contain discretion for the home affairs minister to reject a medical transfer if he or she doesn’t agree with the recommendation of health professionals; or reject it on security grounds.

The security veto was limited in scope, but absolute. If the minister rebuffed a transfer because he or she disagreed with the advice, that could be over ridden by an independent medical review panel.

Labor’s new principles would broaden the grounds on which the minister could prevent a medical transfer to include additional criteria like a criminal record, addressing claims from Morison that Labor was prepared to let murderers and rapists into the country; and also ensure the enhanced procedures only applied to people currently in offshore detention, not to new arrivals.

While key figures have an open mind, it was unclear on Monday night whether the crossbench will play ball with Labor’s revised position. Storer said he would consider Labor’s principles, “but would be disappointed if the amendments do not pass the House in their current form”.

Fearing a Labor backdown last week, Phelps warned the opposition against “caving in” to Morrison’s “scare tactics and deliberate misinformation”.

If Labor and the crossbench don’t come to terms on the proposed revisions, and Morrison avoids a defeat on the floor of the parliament when the sittings resume on Tuesday, the government will chalk that up as a significant win.


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