Refugee stance cost Australian government its majority, says by-election victor

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A newly elected independent MP says a tough policy toward asylum seekers is a major reason why Australia’s conservative government lost its parliamentary majority.

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

Ms Phelps, a doctor and gay rights advocate, will take her seat when Parliament resumes on November 26.

The government now holds half of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and may need to negotiate with independents such as Ms Phelps to pass its legislative agenda.

Ms 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% 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,” she 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.

Kerryn Phelps
Kerryn Phelps (AP)

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 politicians 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 US.

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.

Mr 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”, Mr Morrison told reporters.

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