Embattled Australian PM suffers historic defeat over refugees

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

It is the first time in decades that an Australian government has lost a vote on a substantive piece of legislation, sparking applause and cheers from observers in the parliamentary viewing gallery in Canberra.

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

It prompted the Labor opposition, the Greens and crossbench MPs to support a bill that gives doctors the power to recommend that refugees be transferred to Australia for treatment.

Morrison last week ruled out calling a snap election if his government was defeated over the "stupid" bill.

The bill was first mooted by independent MP Kerryn Phelps previous year after she won the Liberal Party stronghold of Wentworth when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party coup.

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.

"My job now is to do everything within my power, and the power of the government, to ensure that what the Parliament has done to weaken our borders does not result in boats coming to Australia", he said.

The Christmas Island center, on par with detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, has become a symbol of Australia's controversial migration policy, associated with torture, mistreatment, and abuse.

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Labor leader Bill Shorten says his party is tough but fair on border control after it backed the bill.

Phil Glendenning, President of the Refugee Council of Australia said, "We thank and congratulate all the Members of Parliament and Senators who came together and voted with their conscience on this long overdue legislation".

But criticism of the camps has grown amid reports of abuse, suicides and lengthy detention periods, even as the government says the policy is discouraging asylum seekers from embarking on risky sea voyages.

Meanwhile, Labor is aiming to ramp up penalties against bankers and financial institutions who break the law.

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

"Votes will come and they will go, they do not trouble me", Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference in the capital, Canberra, after the vote.

Major changes to Australia's health system would be led by a new, independent expert commission under a federal Labor government, making reforms harder to unpick.

"[It] makes sure if there are people who are in genuine medical need, then they will receive that assistance". People have died as a result.

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