Independent says Australian gov’t lost on its refugee stance

A newly elected independent lawmaker said on Monday a tough policy toward asylum seekers was a major reason Australia’s conservative government lost its parliamentary majority.

Kerryn Phelps on Monday was declared the winner of an Oct. 20 by-election forced when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit parliament after his conservative coalition turned against him.

The high-profile medical doctor and gay rights advocate will take her seat when Parliament resumes on Nov. 26. The government now holds half of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and may need to negotiate with independent lawmakers such as Phelps to pass its legislative agenda.

Phelps partly blamed the tough refugee policy for a voter swing against the government in the wealthy Sydney seat of Wentworth of more than 19 percent since Turnbull last won it in 2016.

Australia refuses to allow asylum seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat to ever settle in the country. Asylum seekers are banished to the poor island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea where some have languished for more than five years.

“What the Australian people have said is that it’s not good enough to trap people on an island offshore from Australia indefinitely for no reason other than that they sought asylum on our shores,” Phelps told a Sydney ceremony that declared her victory.

“The children on Nauru must be evacuated as soon as possible,” she added.

A government envoy said last week that Australia hoped to have all the asylum seeker children on Nauru brought to the Australian mainland by the end of the year.

Children and their parents were being brought to Australia at an increasing pace in recent weeks in an indication that their plight had become an electoral liability. There were only 38 children left on Nauru last week.

The government’s policy has all but ended the people-smuggling boat traffic from Southeast Asian ports.

Pressure has mounted on the government from doctors and rights groups to make an exception for children, but some government lawmakers argue that would only encourage asylum seekers to put children at risk by bringing them on treacherous voyages to Australia on rickety boats.

The United States agreed in 2016 to accept up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But after more than a year of screening, only 439 have found new homes in the U.S.

With the government behind in opinion polls and elections due early next year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already begun campaigning. He kicked off a four-day bus tour on Monday through crucial seats in Queensland state.

Morrison said his government remained functional despite losing its majority.

“It’s obviously easier if there’s one extra but with one less, the government will continue to function in the way you’d expect it to — in a professional way working closely with” independent lawmakers, Morrison told reporters.

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