Asia Pacific / Politics

Embattled Australian prime minister suffers historic defeat over refugees

AFP-JIJI

Australia’s conservative minority government suffered a monumental political defeat Tuesday, becoming the first administration in nearly a century to lose a vote on major legislation and fueling calls for a snap election.

Despite a bruising and highly personal lobbying effort, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was defeated by members of parliament who insisted refugees held in offshore facilities have the right to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

It is the first time in decades that an Australian government has lost a vote on a substantive piece of legislation, sparking applause and cheers from observers in the parliamentary viewing gallery in Canberra.

Morrison lost his parliamentary majority last year and has been relying on crossbenchers to keep control of the lower House of Representatives.

The 75-74 vote — which came on the first sitting day of Parliament this year — is a blow to the already embattled prime minister and raises questions about whether he can remain in office.

When the sitting government last lost a vote on substantive legislation in 1929, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce immediately called an election, and lost it.

The government of Prime Minister Arthur Fadden lost a symbolic budget vote in 1941 and immediately resigned.

Morrison last week ruled out calling a snap election if his government was defeated over the “stupid” bill.

His coalition has to call an election by May and has been trailing the opposition centre-left Labor Party in opinion polls.

The bill was first mooted by independent MP Kerryn Phelps last year after she won the Liberal Party stronghold of Wentworth when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party coup.

Since then, the government had lurched from crisis to crisis, and a disastrous showing in elections in Victoria state sparked fears that it would also lose the national poll.

Under a harsh policy meant to deter asylum-seekers from reaching Australia by boat, Canberra sent arrivals to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing and barred them from resettling in Australia.

But criticism of the camps has grown amid reports of abuse, suicides and lengthy detention periods, even as the government says the policy is discouraging asylum-seekers from embarking on dangerous sea voyages.

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