December 23, 2011
The political impasse over asylum seeker boat arrivals will continue into the new year after Labor and the coalition failed to find to a compromise at a high level meeting ahead of the Christmas holidays.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd met with their opposition counterparts Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop for two and a half hours on Friday but could not come to an agreement on where Australia should process asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Mr Bowen and opposition immigration spokesman Mr Morrison declined to reveal details of the discussions but agreed the talks were courteous and that further discussions would take place in 2012.
He said the stakes were too high to abandon the negotiations, aimed at trying to find a way to deter people smugglers which the government says are encouraging a flow of mainly Middle Eastern people to make the dangerous ocean journey from Asia to Australia’s Christmas Island in search of asylum.
“While agreement was not reached we have not shut the door on further discussion,” Mr Bowen said.
“On behalf of the government I’m committed to doing everything possible to reach a responsible and reasonable agreement for a responsible and reasonable way forward.
“There will need to be further discussions and they will need to consult with other people in their party.”
On Thursday acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan wrote to Opposition leader Tony Abbott offering a compromise to the deadlock.
He said the government would talk to Pacific island nation of Nauru about reopening the former asylum seeker processing centre set up by the coalition and closed by Labor soon after taking power in 2007.
In exchange, the coalition was asked to pass, unchanged, legislation that would allow current and future governments to implement offshore processing.
The proposed changes to the Migration Act would allow the Gillard government go ahead with its planned deal to send 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 confirmed refugees, which was hamstrung by a High Court ruling in August.
Ahead of the Friday meeting, Mr Abbott said the opposition was ready to lend any assistance the government needed to reopen Nauru.
But it remained opposed to the Malaysia deal on humanitarian grounds.
“I make it clear we are also willing to meet but note that nothing has changed regarding our position and objections to the Malaysian people swap,” Mr Abbott wrote in his response to Mr Swan’s letter.
“If the government still wants to pursue the Malaysian people swap policy, it should enlist the support of its alliance/coalition partners, the Greens, to secure its passage through the parliament.”
The minority Greens have repeatedly said they don’t support any kind of offshore processing.
Mr Swan also ruled out granting temporary protection visas to asylum seekers, another key plank of the opposition’s immigration policy.
In his responding letter, Mr Abbott said he was disappointed by this and the visas would remain coalition policy.
Mr Abbott had requested Mr Rudd and his opposition counterpart Ms Bishop be part of any negotiations.
The elements of the deal were discussed at the Friday meeting and Mr Morrison emerged saying while the opposition was not closing any doors it believed the government who had more work to do.
“It will be a matter for the government to initiate that contact and we will look forward to hearing from them when they are ready to do so,” he told journalists.
“The government still has more work to do and a meeting will be convened.
“We haven’t closed the door to a discussion.”
Meanwhile, Indonesian police have arrested eight people in connection with an overloaded boat carrying 250 asylum seekers that capsized en route to Australia, as the confirmed death toll reached 90.
Only 47 passengers and two crew members were rescued.