Scott Morrison reopens Christmas Island asylum seeker detention centre

Doctors visited Parliament House to urge politicians to back a bill to make it easier for critically ill asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia

The government has lost a vote on its own legislation for the first time in 90 years.

This bloc of 75 was enough to pass the bill over the 73 government votes and another vote from Queensland independent Bob Katter.

Under changes to the legislation, two doctors can recommend medical evacuations for sick asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.

When the sitting government last lost a vote on substantive legislation in 1929, then prime minister Stanley Bruce immediately called an election, and lost it.

The vote drew cheers from asylum-seeker activists in parliament's public gallery but the upper house must approve the bill before it becomes law, so the defeat, though damaging for the government, does not trigger an immediate election.

Speaking before the vote, Morrison said that the changes would encourage people-smugglers and provoke a new flow of arrivals.

Mr Morrison ruled out calling a snap election, saying the vote was not a no-confidence motion in his government and he was still planning for a national poll in May.

The Morrison government has beefed up its border protection measures and will reopen the Christmas Island detention centre in anticipation of what it claims will be a resumption of the people smuggling trade.

At its peak in 2010, nearly 2500 people were held there as Australia faced unprecedented numbers of asylum-seeker boat arrivals. His Liberal-National coalition's six years in power has been marked by instability, with two prime ministers toppled by internal insurrections.

The push to speed up medical evacuations was first made by independent MP Kerryn Phelps past year after she won the Liberal Party stronghold of Wentworth when former PM Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party coup.

The changes included a provision that only the 1,000 asylum seekers now held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not any future arrivals would be considered for medical evacuation under the new regime.

"If we're re-elected it won't apply to anybody because I will reverse it", he said.

Hundreds of asylum seekers who have been allowed into Australia for hospital treatment have received court injunctions that prevent their return to the islands.

"It should never have had to come to this point, but it is evident this bill was urgently needed to force action", lawyer Jennifer Kanis said in a statement.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he expected more boats to head for Australia in treacherous voyages that sometimes end in tragedy.

"If you think that by buying a ticket on an unsafe boat, paying a people smuggler, a criminal syndicate, you'll get a better deal to come to Australia, you're wrong".

The amendments to the bill were introduced in Parliament back in December.

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