The prime minister seized on the softening of Labor’s position, saying the «completely unnecessary» bill would undermine the government’s border protection regime and result in the end of offshore processing.
«There is no middle ground to be found here – there is only the right ground,» Mr Morrison said. «If Bill breaks this, he owns it. It will be on his head.»
The government simultaneously released a departmental briefing backing its claim that the medivac bill, if passed, would result in «most of the 1000 individuals” on Nauru and Manus Island securing doctors willing to recommend their transfer to Australia «within weeks”.
It also released a costing that estimated the cost to the taxpayer of complying with the asylum seeker medical transfer bill as «at least $1.4 billion».
Refugee advocates say one-third of detainees need medical attention and would be transferred gradually under a triage system.
The medivac bill, championed by Wentworth independent MP Kerryn Phelps, passed in the Senate in the final sitting week of 2018 and in the lower house when Parliament resumes next week.
Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek dismissed the declassified briefing and costings as «another leak from a government that is desperate enough to say anything to get elected».
Asked if Labor was considering withdrawing its support for the bill, Ms Plibersek said the party remained «completely supportive of ensuring that people on Manus and Nauru can get the medical treatment they need».
«We are also very clear that we retain for the Minister the right to override medical advice if there is any suggestion that moving someone compromises our national security,» she said.
«Labor’s proposition is that if someone is sick on Manus Island or Nauru and needs medical evacuation, that that medical evacuation should occur swiftly and effectively.
«But our proposal is also that the minister should always retain discretion to ensure that we can protect our national interests.»
The bill gives the minister 24 hours to challenge a medical panel’s transfer recommendation on national security grounds, which the government argues is too narrowly constructed.
Ms Plibersek also rejected the government’s contention that the Christmas Island detention centre would need to be reopened if this bill passed, saying Labor would ensure that the «dangerous boats don’t restart».
Professor Phelps dismissed the government’s latest move as «scare tactics» aimed at heading off an historic defeat in the lower house.
«That is not what this should be about — this should be about finding a medical solution to a medical problem,» she said.
«We have a medical crisis, a humanitarian crisis before us.»
She said opposition to the bill came from «the hard right of the Liberal party», citing Tony Abbott’s comment that medical professionals tended to «err on the side of compassion».
«Compassion is not a mistake,» Professor Phelps said, adding that she believed voters also wanted a solution.
«I certainly heard it loud and clear during the Wentworth byelection.»
The Home Affairs briefing said the bill would result in a resurgence of boat arrivals as people smugglers «could rightly advise their clients that if they were sent at a future time to a regional processing location, they would only need to stay long enough to seek the recommendations of ‘treating doctors’ for transfer to Australia».
“We expect that this may encourage those prospective clients of people smugglers who, to date, have not decided to travel due to the dissuasion of returns, turn-backs and regional processing.»
It said a «substantial criminal record or conviction of sexually based offences, including those involving a child, or indeed any other threat to the community» may not provide a ground to refuse a person’s transfer to Australia under the security exception.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.