Refugee panel fails to woo crossbench MPs

The government has set up a medical panel to oversee the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia.
The government has set up a medical panel to oversee the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia.

A backdown over medical evacuations of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru has failed to satisfy key crossbench MPs who could soon deliver the Morrison government an historic defeat.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced plans to establish an independent panel to consider medical transfers from offshore processing centres.

The added layer of oversight comes in response to calls from crossbench MPs for decisions on medical transfers to be handled by doctors instead of politicians and public servants.

However, while the panel could ask immigration officials to reassess individual cases, it would not have the power to overturn decisions.

The proposal has failed to win over Wentworth independent MP Kerryn Phelps, who is leading a push to give doctors the final say.

"It's not going to solve the problem because we still have bureaucrats making the medical decisions and then being reviewed by a medical panel," she told ABC radio.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor would consider the detail of the independent panel, but would still vote for amendments introduced by Dr Phelps, making clinicians the decision-makers on medical transfers.

"Hopefully there will be more sensible negotiation and discussion from the government as they face the pressure of losing a vote in parliament," Mr Shorten told reporters in Tasmania.

Victorian crossbencher Cathy McGowan is also unconvinced by the government's move, saying she would confirm her position when the amendments come before parliament next week.

The amendments put forward by Dr Phelps and supported by Labor and the Greens have passed the Senate.

A vote on the changes is expected in the House of Representatives as early as next week.

The coalition risks becoming the first federal government in 90 years to lose a substantive vote in parliament, which would be widely seen as a loss of confidence.

The five-member expert panel will be chaired by the commonwealth's chief medical officer and comprise experts in counselling and trauma as well as a nominee of the Australian Medical Association.

Inpatient mental health services will also be established to treat asylum seekers on Manus Island.

The prime minister said his changes would improve transparency of medical transfers and give Australians greater confidence in the services being delivered.

He urged Labor to drop its support for the amendments around medical transfers, arguing the changes would render border protection "useless" by sub-contracting out government decisions to any two clinicians on Skype.

"There is no reason whatsoever for Labor to abolish offshore processing as we know it and I would urge the leader of the opposition to change their position on this," Mr Morrison told reporters.

"There is no reason to support these amendments other than cheap politics."

South Australian independent senator Tim Storer, who helped introduce the medical transfer changes to the upper house, rejected the prime minister's assessment of the move.

Meanwhile, Immigration Minister David Coleman has admitted it could be weeks before there are no more asylum seeker children on Nauru.

The minister said the timing rests with the US, where the final four children are preparing to fly with their families for resettlement.

Australian Associated Press