By saying Labor supports ministerial discretion, Mr Neumann has indicated the party will no longer back the bill in its current form — despite voting for it last year in the Senate — and will seek amendments.
The backdown is likely to infuriate the independent MPs behind the push to get sick refugees off Nauru and Manus Island for treatment.
Kerryn Phelps, the independent MP for the Sydney seat Wentworth, said it would be “enormously disappointing” if the opposition backed down, while independent senator Tim Storer said voters might wonder what Labor stood for.
“If Labor does back down now, voters may wonder about the value of its commitments more generally and wonder whether what Labor says before the election is what it would actually do if it comes to power,” Senator Storer said.
Any softening by Labor would represent a significant win for the Morrison government, which was facing an historic defeat in the House of Representatives this week as Parliament resumes for the year.
Immigration Minister David Coleman reiterated the government’s furious opposition to the bill on Sunday, telling Sky News it would take the power and responsibility over who comes into Australia away from the government.
Mr Coleman claimed about 1000 refugees on Manus Island and Nauru — practically everybody who is left from the offshore processing regime set up in 2013 — would be transferred to Australia within weeks if the bill was passed.
This was despite the fact that under the law, the government would set up its own panel of medical experts to review cases. If two examining doctors approve a medical transfer to Australia — as is required by the bill — but the transfer is rejected by the Home Affairs Minister, the panel would review the case. The minister would be obliged however to accept the panel’s advice.
“I think it’s very likely that the panel would be so inclined that the transfers would occur. That would mean that substantially everyone would come to Australia within weeks,” Mr Coleman said.
“That is consistent with the advice [from the Department of Home Affairs.]”
The advice from the department does not specifically say all 1000 would be transferred. Rather it states they “could have access to a transfer to Australia within weeks”.
Transfer to Australia has in the past meant sick refugees and their families take out injunctions against being sent back to Manus Island and Nauru and manage to stay in Australia.
The government has argued the bill would encourage more asylum-seekers to try and get to Australia by boat.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is due to receive a briefing on the bill by officials from the Department of Home Affairs on Monday.
Dr Phelps, a former president of the Australian Medical Association and the architect of the bill, said the legislation was a joint effort by crossbench MPs, Labor, the Greens and refugee advocates and lawyers, and addressed the major security concerns.
“Over the last week, we have heard reports of their [Labor’s] position softening. It would be enormously disappointing if that were to happen,” she said.
She said she’d been “disturbed” by the “scaremongering” of the government, which was inflating the number of people likely to come to Australia.”
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.