The legislation had scraped through the House of Representatives late Wednesday by 74 votes to 72 after six hours of passionate debate, amplified by two recent deadly accidents involving boats filled with Australia-bound migrants. But the Senate rejected the bill 39 votes to 29 after sometimes tearful arguments.
More than 90 people are believed to have died in a capsizing last week midway between the Australian territory of Christmas Island and Indonesia, and another four are believed to have died in a capsizing Wednesday.
The legislation would have enabled the government to deport asylum seekers who arrive by boat to another country in Southeast Asia or the Pacific. Boat arrivals are currently sent to Christmas Island to have their asylum claims assessed, although many asylum seekers have been transferred to the Australian mainland in recent months because of overcrowding at the island detention facilities.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had urged senators to pass the law on Thursday before Parliament takes a six-week break. After the Senate vote, Gillard accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of making no effort to compromise on legislation she said could save lives.
“Mr. Abbott did not move one millimeter at any stage of this … while people are drowning at sea,” she told reporters. Abbott, however, blamed Gillard, accusing her of displaying “pride and stubbornness.”
Both Gillard’s center-left Labor Party and the conservative opposition coalition agree that sending asylum seekers to a third country to have their refugee claims assessed is the best option for putting people smugglers out of business and to curb the flow of boats.
But they differ on where the asylum seekers should be sent. The government wants to send them to Malaysia as part of a swap deal in which Australia would resettle U.N.-recognized refugees from Kuala Lumpur.
The opposition rejects Malaysia and any other country that has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, for fear that the asylum seekers’ rights will not be respected. The coalition prefers the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru, where a previous conservative Australian government had paid for and maintained an immigration detention center.
“The coalition will never support Malaysia. Full stop. End of story,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra. He said Gillard “should have taken what she could get.” The opposition could not have defeated the measure on its own, but it was joined by the minor Greens party, which is part of Gillard’s minority government. Unlike either of the main parties, the Greens, believe Australia should accept all boat arrivals.
The government previously planned to implement the Malaysian deal without Parliament’s approval, but in August 2011 the High Court ruled that such a move would be illegal. Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Senate the number of boat arrivals slowed from May last year, when the Malaysian deal was announced, but then tripled after the government gave up trying to get enabling legislation through Parliament in October last year.
The compromise bill rejected by the Senate had been drafted by independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott. It would have enabled the government to send asylum seekers to a range of countries including Malaysia and Nauru.
“We can break the business model of the people smugglers and we have a duty to do so,” Carr told the Senate. “The absence of a clear decision is seen as an open door to Australia.” The boat that capsized Wednesday sank 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Australia’s Christmas Island and 185 kilometers (115 miles) south of the main Indonesian island of Java. Rescue authorities praised three merchant ships that came to the rescue for preventing a worse tragedy.
Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized just 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the latest tragedy. Only 17 bodies were recovered. The survivors’ refugee applications were being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center for boat arrivals.