Manus Island detention eviction: Pacific Solution now a shared embarrassment

Australian MP Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.
Australian MP Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton.

After 15 years of constant change and evolution the Pacific solution has hit a dead end.

Since 2001 the rejection and offshore isolation of refugees arriving by boat has been a bipartisan program.

Now it is a shared embarrassment.

Papua New Guinea is evicting Australia's detention centre from Manus Island and the Australian Government doesn't know what to do with the 850 men kept there.

Also trapped uncomfortably in this policy no-through-road are the ambitions of two wannabe prime ministers and the unity of the ALP on asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton sees a leadership role for himself in a post-Malcolm Turnbull Liberal Party, including the prime ministership.

Mr Dutton does not have a large body of support behind him, but does have a lot of self belief and aggression.

The aggression has emerged recently in his crankiness over reports of alleged abuse of asylum seekers sent to Nauru.

It's also been obvious in finding somewhere for the Manus men, almost all genuine refugees, who won't go back to their homelands as Mr Dutton wants.

The lack of a solid response to the long-anticipated eviction has made the Government seem impotent, and the Pacific solution look rickety. And to his critics, Mr Dutton looks out of his depth.

There also has been tension over past asylum seeker policy generated by Treasurer Scott Morrison, a former Immigration Minister and generally considered a future contender for the party leadership.

In 2011 the Labor minority Government of Julia Gillard proposed a modest refugees-for-asylum-seekers swap with Malaysia. Shadow immigration minister Morrison led the moves to block the necessary legislation.

Mr Morrison went to Malaysia to underline how harsh conditions would be for the swapped asylum seekers - an irony given the reported conditions on Nauru and Manus at present.

"I acted in accordance with my leader's instructions," Mr Morrison told Sky News this week, apparently flick-passing blame to then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Mr Abbott contests it was his decision alone, but certainly he revived the Malaysian Solution debater by a remarkable statement of regret over its blocking.

"Letting it stand would have been an acknowledgment of the government-of-the-day's mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation's challenges," he said in a speech.

"It would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life."

The admission of an asylum-seeker miss-step five years ago didn't help Peter Dutton deal with current stumbling.

Labor isn't free from the Manus/Nauru decay of the Pacific solution.

Campaigning is underway for the October Legislative Assembly elections in the ACT.

They are local elections dominated by local issues such as a light rail project.

However, there is an element of federal political debate.

Both Liberal and Labor candidates have confirmed they are being pressed by voters on asylum seeker policy, with Labor supporters threatening to shift to the Greens as a protest in October. The shift might be significant.

Multiply it by other elections in the coming three years and the ALP could face a damaging desertion over asylum seeker policy.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has suggested he and Prime Minister Turnbull visit that other policy curl-de-sac, Nauru, the source of the horror stories Minister Dutton has been angrily discounting.

However, Labor will have to do more than challenge the competence of the Government on asylum seeker management.

It will have to devise or contribute to a new policy.

The Pacific solution appears to be going nowhere at the moment.

- news.com.au

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