New refugee policy gets PM off hook

By Greg Ansley

The politics of the Australian Government's decision to reopen offshore processing facilities for asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island will not be silenced despite the Opposition's indication it will support new migration laws.

As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday moved amendments to allow the measures proposed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard's expert panel on boat people, the Opposition tried to exploit her move as "capitulation" and to blame the Government for the deaths of 1000 people at sea.

Its attack was given force by the news that 67 more asylum seekers are feared to have perished in the Indian Ocean after the departure of their boat in late June and no evidence of their arrival in Australia.

Since Friday Australian patrol boats have intercepted seven vessels with more than 350 people on board.

But the package adopted by the Government offers Gillard the chance of finally removing one of her most sensitive issues, improving her chances of reshaping the political agenda and beginning to rebuild support. She has had recent successes with the new national disability insurance scheme, support for her attack on the states for raising electricity prices, a lessening of opposition to the carbon tax, and some improvement in the polls.

Gillard has agreed to reverse Labor's previous rejection of offshore processing and the dumping of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's Pacific Solution after steadily increasing numbers of boats arriving from Indonesia were caught in a political gridlock.

More than 22,000 people have sought asylum since Labor came to power in 2007, opening Gillard's struggling minority Government to a debilitating attack from the Opposition and all efforts at reaching compromise blocked by both Liberals and Greens.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott refused to consider Gillard's alternative plan of a refugee swap with Malaysia, demanded the reintroduction of restrictive temporary protection visas and insisted that the navy turn boats back to Indonesia. The Greens, holding the balance of power in the Senate, refused to accept offshore processing in any form.

After more than a year of deadlock and failed attempts at compromise, Gillard set up the panel to produce a workable policy.

The panel backed elements of both major parties' policies and recommended the reopening of facilities in Nauru and PNG, continued talks with Malaysia, and increased co-operation with Indonesia.

A key aim was to discourage refugee boats by increasing the barriers to asylum in Australia, undermining the sales pitch of people smugglers. While Australia's refugee intake will be increased to 20,000 a year, and up to 27,000 within five years, asylum seekers arriving by boat will not be able to enter the country until they have spent an equivalent amount of time to others applying through formal channels. That could take years.

The former Pacific Solution detention centres are expected to be replaced by new facilities that will allow asylum seekers freedom of movement, without confinement behind razor wire.

If Parliament acts quickly to pass the Migration Act amendments, Defence Force surveillance teams could be in Nauru and PNG by Friday.

The Opposition will make as much noise as possible, with question time yesterday dominated by continued attacks on the Government's handling of asylum seekers.

"We've had 22,000 illegal arrivals, we've had almost 400 illegal boats, we've had hundreds of drownings at sea because the current Government changed a policy that worked," Abbott said.

But Gillard told Parliament it was time to drop the politics "and to actually get on with the job of enacting the recommendations of this report".

- NZ Herald

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