Monday 5 September 2011

Embattled Gillard may turn to the Opposition as it turns the screw

Bill Leak
Illustration: Bill Leak Source: The Australian

LABOR'S asylum-seeker policy is in even worse trouble than it was last week after the High Court's demolition of its Malaysia Solution: swapping refugees for illegal boat arrivals.
There is a massive public repudiation of the Gillard government's handling of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia. It is much worse than when Kevin Rudd started to lose the policy argument and popular support in late 2009.

More than a year after Julia Gillard promised to "fix" the issue of illegal boat arrivals, support for the government's policy has gone backwards and is now considered "bad" by three out of four voters. But this is not just a case of voters thinking the government has handled the issue poorly or that the High Court has dealt Labor a blow.

A similar ratio of voters, three to one, believe the Coalition would handle the issue better. This perception - although with a high level of support for what would be the Greens' policy of all onshore processing, as well as those who are undecided - puts the Prime Minister at the mercy of Tony Abbott.
The Opposition Leader is again in a position of being seen to set the political and policy agenda despite not being the prime minister. By offering to compromise on his own policy to support Labor, Abbott is exploiting Gillard's lack of authority and the weakness of minority government.

Chris Bowen, whom colleagues say earned their respect by being prepared to resign after the High Court loss, has tried valiantly to retrospectively undermine the Coalition's Pacific Solution from the Howard era and thus weaken Abbott's position today.

Yet these duelling positions on policy and legal interpretation of the court's ruling are a political ploy. Abbott wants to be seem to be "governing" in a positive sense to get a good outcome, while drawing Labor into a potential legislative nightmare. Bowen doesn't want to really abandon offshore processing, while casting doubt on using Nauru.

The irony is that both sides want to keep offshore processing as a policy because it is the strongest option to act as a deterrent for both sides. The prospect of returning to the systems of more than a decade ago with bulging detention centres, years of delays and endless legal appeals is not really an option for either side.

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