Mr Dutton told radio 2GB that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had been briefed. «The agencies have told him that this bill would be a disaster, that it would restart boats,» Mr Dutton said.
He later conceded Mr Shorten was not briefed on the bill, saying he «assumed» the Labor leader had accepted an offer to be briefed and was «astounded to learn he has not done so».
A spokesman for Shayne Neumann, Labor’s immigration spokesman, said: «Peter Dutton is lying when he claims Labor has received an intelligence briefing on the Phelps bill.»
The conflict has prompted some experts to call for agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to intervene by publicly releasing a version of its advice, without compromising sources, to improve transparency and reduce the risk of politicisation.
«ASIO should produce a redacted version that doesn’t give away national security or imperil the sources of intelligence,» said John Coyne, head of the border security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“I think the public, and in this case the politicians who are developing this bill and pushing it through, need to have some further detail in that decision-making process.»
Former Australian Border Force boss Roman Quaedvlieg echoed that assessment, arguing: «There is no reason why ASIO couldn’t produce a document which is declassified in the context of the national interest.»
Mr Shorten has not yet responded to an invitation for a briefing from senior government agencies, which was offered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday.
Mr Dutton described this as «an alarming failure of leadership», and Mr Coyne agreed Labor should accept the briefings it had been offered, «especially given how controversial to the Australian people the issue is».
Mr Coyne said he broadly accepted the government’s argument that Dr Phelps’ bill would undermine Operation Sovereign Borders. «It will introduce a level of doubt that desperate people will interpret as being an opportunity,» he said.
Dr Phelps’ legislation would compel ministers to transfer refugees from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia on the advice of two independent doctors in Australia. The minister would have limited capacity to overrule the doctors on security grounds.
Labor has produced its own legal advice on the bill, from Labor-linked barrister Matthew Albert, who argued it was written in a way that would maintain border security. Mr Dutton dismissed this as the opinion of «some suburban lawyer [and] an activist in this space».
The bill has become a crucial test for the minority Morrison government, as Labor and the crossbench are on the cusp of having enough votes to pass the legislation against the will of the government.
It would be the first time since 1929 that a government has lost a vote on substantive legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives. In 1929, then prime minister Stanley Bruce called an immediate election.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday ruled out calling a snap election if his government lost the vote. «This is a stupid bill,» he said. «It’s written by people who haven’t got the faintest idea how this works.»
with Sumeyya Ilanbey
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.