Nick Xenophon has told constituents he is still considering how to vote on the government’s bill for a lifetime ban on visiting Australia for anyone sent to Nauru or Manus Island after mid-2013.
In an email on Monday to people who have contacted him Xenophon said: “My personal view is that I am still prepared to consider this legislation provided there are suitable amendments that would also include a commitment to further increase the humanitarian intake (in the thousands), and in doing so, allow more asylum seekers into the country.”
He said he understood the harshness of the proposed ban but noted it would include ministerial discretion, which on his experience of immigration cases was not “as inflexible as many may think”.
One new factor that must be considered was the government’s “breakthrough agreement” with the United States for America to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island, he said.
“At this stage I cannot come to a final decision until I have had further discussions with the government” and with his colleagues, he said in the letter.
The three Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) senators will have a conscience vote on the bill, to be considered by the Senate in the final fortnight of sittings, starting next week. The party had talks with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton last week.
House of Representatives NXT member Rebekha Sharkie voted against the bill in the lower house last week.
The government wants the legislation as a message to people smugglers and asylum seekers that despite the US deal, Australia is not softening its border policy. But the agreement with the US is not conditional on the legislation, weakening the incentive for crossbenchers to support it.
With Labor and the Greens already opposed, the Coalition needs eight out of 10 crossbenchers to get the bill through. This means that it has to get some support from the NXT.
Senator Derryn Hinch said that he had not seen the legislation yet. Exempting under-18 year olds – as the bill provides - was a start but lifetime bans were not practicable, he said.
Malcolm Turnbull reiterated that the legislation was vital as part of the deterrent to people smugglers. “We have to send the clearest, the most unequivocal message to the people smugglers,” he said.
The Prime Minister on Monday would not elaborate on key aspects of the US deal.
Asked whether he was confident the incoming Trump administration would not overturn it, Turnbull said Australia had a very long history of cooperation with the US “where we are able to pursue our mutual and our respective humanitarian and national security objectives”.
“I’m confident the arrangements we’ve set in place will continue,” he said.
He said the refugees would be within the American quota, not in addition to it.
The timeframe will stretch into the Trump administration with Turnbull saying “the process will continue for some months … The United States won’t be shortcutting their security or health checks”. American officials are due in Australia and then will travel to Nauru.
Pressed on why he did not speak about the agreement to President-elect Donald Trump during last week’s phone call, he said: “we deal with one administration at a time. And you don’t discuss confidential matters with one administration with a future administration.”
He would not be precise about how many of the about 1600 eligible people would end up in the US, saying “we have not set a number on it. The Americans will assess the refugees from a security and health point of view as referred to them by the UNHCR.”
Paris Aristotle, CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, said that he did not think a lifetime ban from even visiting served any policy purpose.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra