Monday 12 September 2011

Tony Abbott agrees to consider new offshore processing laws

Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen
hold a joint press conference at Parliament House in Canberra today.
Picture: Ray Strange Source: The Australian

TONY Abbott has agreed to consider government legislation to put offshore refugee processing beyond doubt as Labor declared his support for the changes as a test of his leadership.
The Prime Minister today vowed to push ahead with her Malaysian refugee swap with amendments to the Migration Act that would also allow a future Abbott government to restart processing on Nauru.

In a statement this afternoon, the Opposition Leader said he would look at the proposal, which was earlier given the green light by the Labor caucus. ''The Coalition will consider any legislation put forward by the Government in relation to offshore processing,'' Mr Abbott said.

But he continued his attack on the Malaysian Solution, saying Labor had come up with a ''legislative excuse'' for a flawed policy. Ms Gillard challenged Mr Abbott to pass the government's amendments in the national interest.

In a July 2010 interview with 6PR radio Ms Gillard said: ''I would rule out anywhere that is not a signatory to the refugee convention.'' However, Malaysia has not signed the convention, while Nauru will become a party to the agreement by September 26.
Following a caucus meeting today, Ms Gillard she was determined to put the Malaysian Solution in place and open a refugee processing centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

"These amendments will be broad in nature,'' she said. "They will enable the government of the day to design and implement its best solution. "The best solution from our point of view is the arrangement with Malaysia with a complementary centre in PNG.''

Ms Gillard said she would work with the opposition on the wording of the proposed amendments. But she said there was "nothing to negotiate'' with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who'd expressed a desire to restore offshore processing.

"I am not asking Tony Abbott to give me any more power as Prime Minister then he would seek for himself were he ever prime minister,'' Ms Gillard said. Mr Abbott opposes the Malaysian Solution and wants to reopen the Howard government's processing centre on Nauru. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government would introduce the amendments into the parliament next week.

The amendments would restore the previously understood intent of the Migration Act before the Malaysian Solution was declared invalid and offshore processing placed in doubt by the High Court earlier this month. Mr Bowen confirmed the government would also amend legislation to ensure unaccompanied minors could be processed offshore.

He said the government's overriding obligation was to stop children risking their lives on a dangerous boat journey; an objection that had been compromised by the High Court's ruling." In our view that is clearly not sustainable as public policy and we will also seek to return the law to its previous understanding that the Minister for Immigration of the day has the discretion to deal with these matters as appropriate," he said.

Mr Bowen also confirmed a report in The Australian Online that returning to onshore processing would cost up to $4 billion as the number of asylum-seekers rose. Ms Gillard said she was not asking Mr Abbott to agree with her about processing asylum-seekers in Malaysia.

"He can criticise Malaysia up hill and down dale and I will maintain my objection to Nauru," she said. "It's costly and it won't work and I don't believe Mr Abbott should be agitating for a solution that is costly and doesn't work.

"This is something else. This is about government having the power to act." Mr Abbott is not expected to respond to the announcement today. "We look forward to receiving a briefing on the changes the government is proposing,'' his spokesman said.

Greens Leader Bob Brown lashed the Prime Minister over the policy decision. "She is out of touch with the Australian people,'' Senator Brown said."The Greens will not be supporting that position.

"We will continue to argue that the right and just outcome is to process asylum-seekers onshore in Australia as every equivalent country on the face of the planet does.''

Senator Brown said Labor was moving "to the right of Tony Abbott'' on asylum policy and the Greens would not support the legislation or any Coalition amendments.

Additional reporting: James Massola

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