More boats set sail as politicians fight

By Greg Ansley

There have been reports of more boats heading to sea regardless of his policies or the latest tragedy which claimed at least nine lives off Java. Photo / AMSA
There have been reports of more boats heading to sea regardless of his policies or the latest tragedy which claimed at least nine lives off Java. Photo / AMSA

The stakes continue to rise in Australia's furore over asylum seekers, spreading from domestic politics to raw international nerves as the major parties scramble to show the biggest muscles on boats from Indonesia.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is trying to defend the high ground with his plan to send all asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea with no hope of ever settling in Australia.

But amid reports of more boats heading to sea regardless of his policies or the latest tragedy which claimed at least nine lives off Java, he faces claims that his drastic measures are already failing.

Detention camps are overcrowded, and a series of allegations by whistleblowers of rape, violence and growing mental problems have further hammered the Government.

Last weekend, rioters destroyed much of the detention centre on Nauru, and Immigration Minister Tony Burke yesterday flew to investigate alarming reports of conditions on Manus Island in PNG.

Rudd has defended his PNG detention and resettlement policy, arguing that the end justifies the means.

"You will not see hundreds of people drown offshore from Australia [if the boats are not stopped]," he said yesterday. "You'll see thousands drown offshore from Australia."

But former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, calling for a royal commission into the offshore processing of asylum seekers, described the remote island centres as "Australia's gulag" - a reference to the forced labour camps of the former Soviet Union.

Greens leader Christine Milne also attacked Rudd: "It's not politics, it's pure persecution which is coming from the Prime Minister and his PNG proposition."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who has been wielding boat arrivals as a cudgel against Labor ahead of the election, has strengthened his already uncompromising stance.

But he is increasingly running foul of Australia's closest neighbours - Indonesia and PNG - who play a crucial role in trying to stem the flow of boats across the Indian Ocean.

He promises to turn back boats intercepted in Australian waters where it is safe to do so, regardless of repeated rejection of the policy by the Indonesian Government.

Now he has deeply offended PNG, despite confirmation by his immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, that a Coalition Government would continue with Rudd's policy of sending all boat arrivals to Manus.

The Opposition claimed that during private talks with Rudd last week, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill had been given a free hand in using the increasing aid money that will come with the agreement to take asylum seekers off Australia's hands.

Abbott said the funds would not now be used with the accountability usually demanded by Canberra: "Australian aid should never be a free gift to a foreign Government," he said.

O'Neill described Abbott's claims as "completely untrue".

"I don't particularly appreciate being misrepresented by others for their own political interests," he said.

"We are not going to put up with this kind of nonsense. Try and be respectful."

Abbott remained unrepentant, and yesterday announced that boats would start being turned back within 100 days of his winning office, backed by extra military muscle.

The existing Operation Resolute, involving Orion patrol planes and navy warships working with other agencies, would be beefed up by a new military-led force called Operation Sovereign Borders.

A three-star general would lead a joint taskforce involving 12 agencies, with extra vessels brought in to tackle what Abbott described as a "national emergency".

"This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year."

- NZ Herald

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