Saturday 10 September 2011

Julia Gillard's bid to crash through on asylum boats

Asylum seekers
The latest boat arrivals on a barge from HMAS Wollongong head towards
Christmas Island's Flying Fish Cove yesterday. Picture: Colin Murty Source: The Australian

Julia Gillard has called a special meeting of Labor MPs on Monday to stare down her opponents, confront head-on the issue of asylum-seekers and find a way past the High Court's rejection of the Malaysia people-swap deal.

As border protection authorities yesterday intercepted the first illegal boat to arrive since the shock High Court ruling derailed the government's Malaysia Solution, the Prime Minister called an unscheduled cabinet meeting - to be held before a special meeting of caucus - at which senior ministers will attempt to reach a position ahead of a potentially bruising week in parliament.

The opposition leapt on the arrival of the latest boat, carrying 72 asylum-seekers.

Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the 100th boat to arrive under Ms Gillard's prime ministership showed Labor had lost its way on the issue and was "paralysed by their own internal division, incompetence and obligations to the Greens".

It is expected that the cabinet meeting will discuss the High Court's decision, and alternative policies and proposed legislation, before the special Labor caucus meeting at 9.30am on Monday.

Ms Gillard is faced with the prospect of having to get Tony Abbott's co-operation on new laws to allow offshore processing of asylum-seekers in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea or Nauru, as well as opposition from her Greens partners and sections of her own party.

On Thursday, Greens leader Bob Brown savaged the Prime Minister's plan to seek opposition support for legislation to circumvent last week's High Court rejection of offshore processing of asylum-seekers.

Describing senior Immigration Department bureaucrats as "turkeys", Senator Brown said: "Wrong way, Julia Gillard. Turn round and go back."

Senior government sources are confident Ms Gillard will be able to win the day on offshore processing if cabinet endorses the policy, and stare down Labor critics who want the government to drop all offshore processing.

Yesterday, the Opposition Leader again called for Ms Gillard to continue offshore processing and to use the facilities on Nauru, built under the Howard government's Pacific Solution, for offshore processing.

"The Coalition fully supports offshore processing; we invented offshore processing," Mr Abbott said yesterday.

"We have the patent on offshore processing and I suggest to the Prime Minister that the best thing she can do if she's serious about stopping the boats is reopen the Nauru detention centre straight away.

"If there's any legislative impediment to the use of Nauru, the Coalition will co-operate to removing that. Obviously, there is no impediment to the use of Nauru . . . because the President has told her that he's only too happy to reopen the detention centre there.

"So, look, if as the government has been advised it is absolutely critical for offshore processing to be happening, well, now the government has no excuse for not reopening the offshore detention centre."

Border Protection Command said yesterday the latest arrival was intercepted by HMAS Wollongong after being detected by a RAAF maritime patrol. The 72 passengers were transferred to Christmas Island, where they will undergo initial checks.

The youngest looked about 14, but most in the group were men aged in their 20s and 30s. All seemed healthy as they walked down Flying Fish Cove's jetty.

One man wore a bulky leather jacket, others were in tracksuit pants and none showed signs of sickness after a long boat journey on an Indonesian fishing vessel. There was no sign of any children.

The asylum boat was the first to arrive at the island in three weeks. Expectations were high yesterday among Christmas Islanders and authorities that other boats were on their way to the island.

The adult males will initially be held at the island's main detention centre, which was the scene of jubilation last week when the detainees learned the court had allowed them to stay in Australia.

Many long-term detainees at the centre say they are in despair at the time it is taking for their claims to be processed.

A group of Iraqi men visiting the island's mosque for Friday prayers yesterday said they had been in detention for up to 15 months and rejected twice. "I don't have any hope here," one man said.

"Please help me," another man yelled across the lawn of the mosque. The guard escorting the half a dozen detainees told The Weekend Australian not to talk to the men, as this would lead to their rare excursions being cancelled.

A handful of men at the centre remain on a hunger strike. There are now about 720 people detained at various compounds on the island after 29 mainly Iranian men received visas and were sent to the mainland on Thursday.

The men said as they boarded their plane this week that they were very happy to have been accepted as refugees, but were also sad at what they had experienced and witnessed in detention.

The latest boat arrival comes amid warnings to the government that, without offshore processing, Australia could expect 600 boatpeople a month, overwhelming the immigration detention system and risking cultural unrest as asylum-seekers were housed in the community.

Mr Morrison said if Labor was serious about pursuing offshore processing, and believed the legislation was needed to put the issue beyond doubt, "it should introduce a bill to the parliament at the earliest opportunity".

"The people-smugglers have always had this government's measure, as Labor have lacked the competence, conviction and consistency to pursue an effective border protection policy," Mr Morrison said.

Monday's cabinet and caucus meetings have thrown into doubt by Ms Gillard's scheduled 9am address to the National Convention of the Steel Institute.

BlueScope Steel boss Paul O'Malley and OneSteel's Geoff Plummer are attending the conference as the industry fights for its survival against the pressures of a high Australian dollar.

Additional reporting: Sid Maher and Debbie Guest
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