Prime Minister Scott Morrison is open to a back-down on yet another policy principle by allowing the refugees on Nauru to be relocated to New Zealand on the proviso they never come to Australia.
With Coalition backbenchers staring to agitate over the plight of the almost 700 people languishing on the island, Mr Morrison indicated that if the Senate passes a bill forbidding the people from ever coming to Australia, the government will consider shifting them to NZ.
“There is a bill still sitting in the Senate from 2016 that would close the back door from New Zealand to Australia which is opposed by the Labor Party and the Greens and the crossbench Senators which is preventing that protection being put in place. Now I would urge them to reconsider their position on that,” Mr Morrison said.
Later in the day, the Prime Minster’s office said that if the legislation passed, the government would consider sending the refugees to New Zealand.
Labor, the Greens and Senate crossbenchers have thus far refused to pass the legislation. Labor supports sending the refugees to New Zealand while the Greens support letting them into Australia.
A Labor spokesman said Labor had no problems with restrictions, but the bill was too extreme.
For example, if a refugee sent to New Zealand became a distinguished academic and 35 years later wanted to visit Australia for a two-day conference, they would be forbidden from doing so, he said. Labor believes the NZ government, which has offered the refugees sanctuary, could issue them visas with more realistic travel restrictions.
Until now the government has been hostile to the idea of resettling refugees and other asylum seekers in New Zealand, believing that would be the same as allowing them into Australia and would lead to a resumption of the people smuggling trade.
But with 640 people languishing on Manus Island in addition to those on Nauru, external pressure is mounting, especially over the plight of the children, and the Coalition backbench has started to crack.
On Tuesday, the Herald Sun revealed Victorian Liberal MPs Julia Banks and Russell Broadbent, as well as NSW moderate Craig Laundy, met Mr Morrison last month urging all children and their families be brought to Australia, with priority given to the children needing medical treatment.
They would then be resettled in a third nation. It is understood support for action is broader than the three MPs.
The MPs have been influenced by the opinions of doctors. On Monday, a letter signed by almost 6000 doctors was presented to the government.
Australian Medical Association paediatric representative Dr Paul Bauert called the current situation on the island “unconscionable”.
“This is the only situation I’ve come across where it is deliberate government policy which is causing the pain and suffering of these children,” Dr Bauert said.
Last month, Mr Morrison, who as immigration minister stopped the boats, rebuffed the doctors.
“I will not put at risk any element of Australia’s border protection policy,” he said.