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The Anatomy Of A Historic Government Loss In Parliament

If you think about it, this is all Peter Dutton's fault.

If the Member for Dickson hadn't undermined Malcolm Turnbull, the former Prime Minister never would have quit politics. If Turnbull had never quit, the Liberals never would have lost the Wentworth by-election.

If the Liberals didn't lose Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps never would have made it to Canberra, and the government wouldn't have lost their majority in the parliament.

READ MORE: 'I Wish I Died In The Boat': Refugees Forgotten In Debate Over Medical Transfer Bill

READ MORE: Government Suffers Historic Defeat On Refugee Bill

And if Kerryn Phelps didn't make it to parliament, the government wouldn't have suffered a significant defeat for the first time since the 1940s. They wouldn't have reopened the Christmas Island detention centre, and we might not be heading toward a federal election squarely centred on refugees and border protection.

So if you think about it, it's all Peter Dutton's fault.

Peter Dutton (L) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The government's historic defeat on Tuesday was the first time a sitting government has been out-voted on significant legislation since October 1941. The short reign of then-PM Arthur Fadden came to an end the very next day, handing over the keys to the Labor Party after his government lost the confidence of the parliament.

Despite whispers and calls to do the same, Scott Morrison won't call an early election after losing the vote. But the loss is an ignominious landmark of his brief time in the top job, and another body blow to a government that seems to be limping to the finish line of the 45th parliament.

READ MORE: Medical Transfer Bill To Become Law After Passing The Senate 36-34

But the seeds of this loss were sown on the very day Morrison grabbed the keys to the Lodge, with Turnbull departing from politics -- just as he had long telegraphed he would do, if he was unseated as PM -- setting in train a calamitous series of events that culminated in the latest low point for this government.

Leadership spill... remember? (Image: Getty Images)

Turnbull effectively booby-trapped the Prime Ministerial office, his disappearance from the government benches all but assuring his former colleagues would lose their majority and doom whoever next sat in the big chair.

Phelps -- the celebrated, trailblazing doctor and Australian Medical Association president -- stormed Wentworth with a plucky independent campaign that let eastern Sydney locals vent their frustration at the government that hobbled their popular representative in the pink palace at Point Piper.

Wentworth went from the safest of safe, bluest of blue ribbon Liberal seats to electing a political newcomer who placed socially progressive causes like reform on refugee and environment at the forefront of her campaign.

Crossbenchers Adam Bandt, Nick McKim, Kerryn Phelps and Andrew Wilkie arrive at a press conference to talk about the refugee push in November 2018. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

It was thought Phelps, despite her storming win, would be hard-pressed to effect change in her short time in parliament.

She effectively had just a few weeks to cause havoc with the new minority government. True to her words, she quickly set about cobbling together a group of crossbench MPs to demand swift action for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

In the last week before parliament ended for 2018, joined by a newly-independent Liberal defector, she raised a proposal -- known, imaginatively, as "the Phelps bill" -- to speed up medical transfers for refugees.

READ MORE: Morrison Reopens Christmas Island Detention Centre

The government painted it as a blow to national security and border protection. Despite wide debate and media coverage, the bill stalled due to conventions of the House of Representatives.

(AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

But in the Senate, a plan brewed. The government had a bill, the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill, in the upper house for consideration after it passed the House in August 2018.

The Phelps bill had been effectively consigned to the cutting room floor, but the spirit of the legislation could be revived.

The Greens and former South Australian independent senator Tim Storer introduced amendments that attached Phelps-style changes to the government bill like a barnacle, putting the Coalition in the rock-and-a-hard-place situation of either voting against its own legislation or approving fundamental changes to its hardline refugee policy.

The government blinked.

When the legislation came back to the House, after being passed through the Senate with the Greens-Storer amendments attached, the Coalition launched an all-out attack, including two tactical nuclear strikes.

Security assessments that the bill would compromise national security came to light in Murdoch papers in the leadup to parliament resuming.

On the first day of parliament for 2019, mere minutes before the bill was to be debated, the government raised solicitor-general advice that the bill may even be unconstitutional.

Crossbench and Labor MPs sit with Kerryn Phelps and Julia Banks (embracing, centre) after the Medevac bill passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The latter was quickly swatted away, with further amendments hastily tacked on to avoid those issues. But earlier, there had been furious back-and-forth between the crossbench and Labor, with genuine fears the opposition could backflip following the security assessment.

It took some last-minute negotiation but all the insurgents stayed on the same side, even after some public bickering between Greens and Labor on various media platforms.

The bill passed the House narrowly, 75-74, before being returned to the Senate for what turned out to be a mere formality of final assent -- notwithstanding a brief moment where senator Derryn Hinch raised doubts over his support for the bill he had already voted for.

But then it was over. The Morrison government became the first to lose a significant vote for nearly 80 years, a major shift on detention policy passed through the parliament, and Australia headed for yet another election where boats and already-vulnerable refugees will be a headline focus.

And you can't help but think it's all Peter Dutton's fault.