Record level of asylum seekers a blow to Gillard

By Greg Ansley

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / AP
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / AP

Another body blow for embattled Prime Minister Julia Gillard became inevitable at the weekend as an air force Orion sighted a boat nearing the Cocos Islands, Australia's remote outpost in the Indian Ocean.

On board were 49 people, taken to Cocos by the customs vessel Hervey Bay on Saturday for later transfer to the Christmas Island detention centre for asylum seekers.

On Sunday the customs patrol boat Roebuck Bay intercepted another vessel carrying 15 people off Browse Island, close to the coast of Western Australia.

The two interceptions took the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to a record 6765 this year, eclipsing in seven months the previous record of 6555 in 2010, and overshadowing the more than 4500 detained last year.

With present policies paralysed by political deadlock, the new record has given the Opposition further ammunition to lash Gillard in one of her most painfully vulnerable areas as polls continue to predict a landslide against Labor at next year's election.

"We're actually having almost on average a boat arrive every single day," shadow customs and border protection minister Michael Keenan said.

"Clearly that's completely unsustainable and in any functional government it would precipitate a change in policy - but the Government in Canberra at the moment is so dysfunctional that they're just going to sit and let this situation deteriorate.

"This means that 2012 is now the worst year on record for people arriving illegally in Australia ... and of course we're only in July."

Gillard has had some recent wins, beating down stonewalling by the Liberal New South Wales and Victorian governments over funding for trials of the new national disability insurance scheme.

The new Liberal National Government in Queensland still refuses to sign up, but Gillard won a significant victory by ensuring trial programmes will be launched in Australia's two biggest states as well as South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

She has also had some good news on her controversial and unpopular carbon tax, which Opposition leader Tony Abbott has effectively used as a political cudgel.

A Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers yesterday said that most Australians had accepted the tax - introduced last month - and that dissatisfaction with it had declined significantly.

The number of voters who believed they were worse off under the tax had fallen 13 points to 38 per cent, while those who said it made no difference had risen 15 points to 52 per cent.

But with a fiery Parliament set to resume on August 14 and leadership rumblings still resonating beneath the surface, Gillard has a Herculean task to win voters back to Labor.

Reflecting other polls, Nielsen said that while Labor's primary vote had inched forward two points to 30 per cent, the Opposition still led by a crushing 56-44 per cent in the two-party preferred vote that decides Australian elections.

Gillard's inability to forge an effective compromise on asylum seekers - one of Australia's most sensitive issues - has again been highlighted by the new record in the numbers of people crossing the Indian Ocean by boat.

Gillard is now prepared to reopen the former Pacific Solution detention centre on Nauru, the Opposition's favoured response, but only if the agreement she brokered with Malaysia is part of the deal.

This would result in Australia sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for 4000 people verified as refugees by the United Nations.

The Opposition rejects Malaysia outright and the Greens, who hold the balance of power in the Senate, refuse to support any policy of offshore processing.

Regional efforts to stem the flow have increased, with the Sri Lankan Navy in the past month stopping 11 trawlers with a record 530 people on board, most seeking asylum in Australia.

Indonesia, which already works in close co-operation with Australia, is increasing patrols in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, through which most asylum seeker boats pass.

Gillard is now waiting for the report of an expert panel led by former Defence Force Chief Air Marshal Angus Houston, appointed to recommend solutions to the steadily rising number of boats from Indonesia.

But neither she nor Abbott will commit to the panel's findings, due to be handed to the Government before Parliament resumes.

Meanwhile, the mandatory detention of asylum seekers has come under renewed fire from the Human Rights Commission, which called for an end to the policy that at present holds more than 5000 people in confinement.

Most of the detention centres have reached, or are close to, their capacities.

The commission said the policy did not deter asylum seekers, caused significant mental problems and damaged children. It said that unless assessed as unacceptable security risks, asylum seekers should be released into the community.

- NZ Herald

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