Rudd refuses to budge as flak flies over PNG plan

By Greg Ansley

Protesters have been vociferous in their opposition to sending refugees to Papua New Guinea.  Photo / Getty Images
Protesters have been vociferous in their opposition to sending refugees to Papua New Guinea. Photo / Getty Images

Jeered by protesters, harangued by human rights activists and jurists and under mounting attack from the Opposition, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday refused to budge on his new policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.

Backed by tens of millions of dollars in aid and an apparently open wallet, Rudd last week gained PNG's agreement to accept Australia's increasing flow of asylum seekers for processing and resettlement.

Those accepted as refugees will be lodged in one of the Pacific's poorest states, amid warning of growing hostility from locals, while many others could be condemned to indefinite detention.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke told ABC radio yesterday that those who were not accepted as refugees had three options - to stay in detention, return to their home country, or find another country to take them.

Burke said this could potentially mean years in detention centres.

ABC correspondents in PNG reported that asylum seekers were likely to meet with increasing resistance, especially if they received advantages paid for by Australia but not available to many locals.

Former PNG Opposition Leader Dame Carol Kidu said there were already too many displaced people in a nation facing enough problems of its own. Oro Province Governor Gary Zuffa warned the move could be "very divisive".

Rudd's deal with PNG was designed to be harsh and uncompromising, intending to send "a clear message to people smugglers around the world" that Australia was no longer open for business.

Yesterday he accepted the plan would be strongly opposed, even within the Labor Party, and that the Government could face legal challenges both in Australia and PNG.

But there is wide public support for measures to block boats from making the dangerous voyage from Indonesia that has claimed more than 900 lives, and which shows no signs of abating.

The major detention centre on Christmas Island is packed to overflowing, and the existing centre on PNG's Manus Island - condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups - can hold only 300.

While a much larger and upgraded facility is under way, and potentially more camps to come if arrivals continue anywhere near present rates, the system is groaning at the seams.

The other offshore centre on Nauru was largely destroyed by rioting inmates at the weekend, destroying 80 per cent of buildings, leaving hundreds without shelter and presenting Canberra with a A$60 million ($69.7 million) repair bill.

Australia has now placed a A$200,000 bounty for people smugglers and a huge publicity campaign is under way, warning that there is no chance of a new life in Australia. Rudd's crackdown, with the scrapping of the carbon tax in favour of an early emissions trading scheme, education reforms and agreement yesterday on a plan to block any future leadership coups, are key parts of his plans for the coming election.

No date has been announced, but speculation is focusing on August 31.

But his PNG deal, labelled an election gimmick by the Opposition, has met with outrage from human rights groups, which described it as "inhumane", and by international law experts who said it contravened the UN refugee convention.

Refugees settled in the country will face a hard Third World existence with an alien language - Tok Pisin - an overwhelmingly Christian religious culture, and an economy in which 85 per cent of the population survives on subsistence agriculture.

Australia's government's travel advice for PNG urges a "high degree of caution" because of high crime rates including armed robberies, assaults and car-jacking, and warns of high rates of HIV/Aids and endemic cholera with limited health services.

"The commitment [under the refugee convention] is not for people to be able to move to a country with a particular average income," Burke said. "The commitment of the convention is for people to be safe and to be free from persecution.

"The Australian Government will assist PNG in making sure those commitments can be met."

There are signs the message is getting through to at least some asylum seekers.

A group of Iranians planning to sail to Australia told the ABC they would not now attempt the journey, and Immigration Department acting regional manager Steven Karras said yesterday that 81 Iranian arrivals had told him that if they had known of the new policy they would not have sailed to Australia.

Police forced to shield Rudd

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been shielded by police while being heckled by protesters who swarmed around him after the federal caucus meeting in Sydney.

Rudd had to be shielded by police on a walk down Darling St to the historic Unity Hall Hotel - one of two Australian Labor Party foundation locations.

"Kevin Rudd you racist coward, we don't want another Howard," shouted a small group of protesters, who had to be held back by officers as Rudd entered the hotel with deputy PM Anthony Albanese. Across the road, another protester had to be restrained by police as he trailed the Prime Minister down the street shouting "you are a liar, you are a liar".

Other protesters shouted "no to Manus Island" and "reinstate single parents' income" as Rudd strode along Darling St.

The Prime Minister ignored the protesters as he shook hands with locals on Balmain's main street.

He then lunched upstairs at the iconic Labor site as locals waited for him to reappear.

When the election could be called

August 24: Not a goer, after Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wouldn't be going to Yarralumla yesterday, the last day an election could be called for the second last Saturday in August.

August 31: Firming as frontrunner. If it is, Rudd will announce it by Sunday. It's being pushed by some in Labor who fear the Rudd Mark II bandwagon might lose a wheel. The downside is release of corruption inquiry findings in NSW which will remind voters of what's bad about Labor. Also coincides with possible regional meeting on asylum seekers. Referendum for constitutional recognition of local government can't be held this early. Upside: it allows Rudd to attend G20 Leaders Summit in St Petersburg if Labor wins.

September 7: Unlikely because it's on the same weekend as G20 Leaders Summit in St Petersburg. Someone senior, preferably the PM, needs to go because Australia is host in 2014.

September 14: Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's preferred date which almost closes the door on it. Yom Kippur is a limiting, but not insurmountable, factor. Referendum for constitutional recognition of local government can be held from this date.

September 21: Distinct possibility, although maybe a little too soon after G20 summit to overcome predictable criticism of Kevin 747 going global during an election campaign. It's also the PM's birthday - what a present if Labor wins.

September 28: As much hope as GWS winning the AFL flag. It's grand final day.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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