Three Liberal Party backbenchers – Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan – defied Prime Minister John Howard and crossed the floor in the House of Representatives to vote against the hardline policy.
The Liberal Party colleague Bruce Baird abstained from the vote as did National Party MP John Forrest, who subsequently quit his position as the chief Nationals whip because of his decision.
The defiance from the government backbenchers was ultimately fruitless and the bill passed 78 to 62.
But it sets the stage for the Senate debate next week, when at least three crucial votes remain in doubt.
Senate position unclear
Liberal Party senator Judith Troeth openly opposes the government’s plan to send all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat offshore for processing.
She has not committed to crossing the floor, or abstaining, but sat in the public gallery of the House of Representatives to watch her fellow dissidents oppose the bill.
Senator Troeth needs the support of just one coalition colleague or Senator Fielding to tie the vote and have the bill thrown out.
National Party senator Barnaby Joyce has also refused to rule out crossing the floor.
Prime Minister John Howard has held discussions with Senator Fielding, but both were silent on the details of their discussion.
Senator Fielding says he will not sell the government his vote on the bill in exchange for promises on other legislation and policies. “Family First does not do deals,” he told reporters.
He holds a crucial position in the upper house where the government has a majority of one, but he was elected with just 1.9 percent of the primary vote in Victoria on the back of preferences from Labor, the coalition, and minor parties.
He says he has not yet decided how he will vote ahead of a meeting with representatives of the Papuan community, which he will attend with his wife.
He was also given an audience with Indonesian ambassador Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb.
Indonesia has been pushing hard to have the new legislation brought in because of the influx to Australia of asylum seekers from the Indonesian province of West Papua.
The government’s policy shift in April followed a diplomatic row with Indonesia when Australia granted 42 Papuans asylum.