Wednesday 7 September 2011

Abbott 'governs' from Opposition as Gillard eats a slice of humble pie

Julia Gillard enlists Tony Abbott on offshore processing of asylum-seekers
Julia Gillard has taken her first step towards enlisting the opposition to restore offshore processing of asylum-seekers, writing to Tony Abbott in defiance of pressure from the Labor Left and the Greens to switch to an onshore regime.

And the Opposition Leader has agreed to co-operate on legislation to circumvent last week's High Court ruling that struck out Labor's existing border security system, conceding that the national interest demands collaboration. The move to bipartisanship came yesterday as senior government figures admitted to a sense of urgency about the need to deliver a policy response to the High Court declaration that Labor could not proceed with its plans to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 proven refugees.

With the policy aimed at discouraging people-smuggling, it is understood a cabinet meeting on Monday night heard it was vital to deliver a swift legislative response to avoid a new flood of boats arriving off northern Australia. But cabinet delayed a resolution, calling for more information amid concern any decision made in haste could expose the government to further High Court challenges.

Since last week's verdict shifted the goalposts on border security, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader have traded blows. Mr Abbott has urged Labor to reopen a Howard-era processing centre on the Pacific island of Nauru; Ms Gillard has insisted her legal advice makes it clear that the court decision put a cloud over offshore processing in any location. As Greens, Labor and Liberal MPs and former Labor ministers yesterday continued arguing against offshore processing, the phony war ended.

The Prime Minister wrote to Mr Abbott to offer him briefings from senior bureaucrats about the implications of the High Court decision and "their analysis of the different policy approaches that are available to respond"."I note your recent comments about your willingness to work in the national interest to restore the capacity of the executive to enact legislation which will establish appropriate processes for Australia's management and handling of asylum-seekers," Ms Gillard wrote, before leaving Australia for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in New Zealand.

In a written response accepting the briefings, which are expected to be given today, Mr Abbott made it clear he agreed with Ms Gillard on the need to re-establish the legal framework to allow offshore processing. "Since the High Court's decision last week, the government has effectively lacked a policy to deal with illegal boat arrivals and it's hardly in the national interest for this to persist," he wrote.

He told Ms Gillard he still believed the High Court ruling did not affect processing on Nauru and he supported the use of temporary protection visas and turning boats around as they approached Australia if it was safe to do so. "Still, if the government remains committed to offshore processing, as it has been since you first announced the so-called East Timor solution, the opposition will co-operate in putting this beyond legal doubt," he wrote.

As necessity drove the political enemies together, Greens leader Bob Brown accused them of being out of step with public opinion on the matter. "When you do look at the most recent Nielsen poll, 53 per cent of Australians believe that asylum-seekers should be brought ashore and processed," Senator Brown told ABC radio. He said offshore processing eroded the nation's belief that it observed the concept of a fair go.

Michael Lavarch, who was attorney-general in the Keating government, questioned the effectiveness of amending the Migration Act to allow offshore processing to continue. Professor Lavarch, the executive dean of the Faculty of Law at the Queensland University of Technology, said the High Court had signalled it was uncomfortable with offshore processing and attempts to lock up people for indefinite periods.

"Maybe it's time to go back to the starting blocks and accept that Australia should be dealing with asylum-seekers in mainland Australia through onshore processing and assessment regimes," he said. Another former Keating government minister, Carmen Lawrence, said the government should view the High Court's decision as an opportunity to move towards mainland processing of asylum-seekers, saying it was "beyond the pale" to transfer people to third countries.

"They should take the opportunity to rethink entirely the offshore processing of asylum-seekers and move to what is the only sensible option in my view, which is onshore processing with brief detention and put the money that's saved into working in the regional community and beyond into trying to reduce the pressures that are pushing people out of their homes and into boats," she said.

Dr Lawrence quit the Labor front bench in 2002 because Ms Gillard, then the party's immigration spokeswoman, developed a policy that retained the concept of mandatory detention. Current Labor backbencher and former human rights lawyer Melissa Parke said the High Court judgment made clear that the Howard government's Pacific Solution was illegal under the Migration Act.

"The terrible irony is that while the Coalition wrongly demonised asylum-seekers as illegals, they were busy administering an illegal policy," Ms Parke said. "My view is that onshore processing is the safest, most humane and cost-effective approach to what is a difficult issue, but not a particularly big problem."

Liberal MP Judi Moylan, who during the Howard government's term strongly rejected offshore processing, said she remained opposed to processing in Nauru and believed the Malaysia Solution was "dreadful".

"I think we should be processing onshore and we should put an end to mandatory detention - just long enough to do the necessary health and security checks of people," Ms Moylan said.

Additional reporting: Joe Kelly

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