Offshore processing to begin in weeks: PM

Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen

August 14, 2012

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard’s plans to put new asylum seeker laws in place by the week’s end could be in doubt after the coalition delayed their passage.

Parliament spent most of Tuesday debating the government’s new legislation to resurrect offshore processing.

“The time for politics is over, the time for action is here. We want this legislation through,” Ms Gillard told reporters in Canberra shortly before the debate began.

The legislation, modelled on the recommendations of former defence chief Angus Houston’s expert panel, will allow the government to designate any third country for offshore processing of asylum seekers.

But it will also give both houses of parliament the power to veto designations before they come into effect.

That means that processing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea will be allowed to proceed with coalition support, while the government’s preferred option of Malaysia appears doomed.

After pledging to support the legislation, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott led off debate in the House of Representatives, with the majority of 23 opposition MPs queuing up to slam the government’s record on the issue.

Another 27 are still listed, which could lead to debate dragging on through most of Wednesday as well.

The bill then has to pass through the Senate, where the Greens are likely to slow processes down.

Many in the coalition attacked Ms Gillard for her “massive backflip”.

Mr Abbott told parliament: “After tragically almost 1000 deaths at sea and after $4.7 billion has been blown because of the government’s border protection failures, the prime minister has finally seen the sense of what the opposition has been proposing all along.”

The debate coincided with the interception of a boat carrying a suspected 71 asylum seekers off the West Australian coast.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the people, whose boat was intercepted east of Ashmore Islands on Tuesday, would be transferred to Christmas Island for the usual security, health and identity checks.

He added that they ran the risk of transfer to a regional processing country if they had arrived without a visa after the nominated date of August 13.

The government scrapped the Howard government’s Pacific solution in 2008, prompting a dramatic increase in the number of asylum seeker boats coming to Australia.

It has until now refused to reinstate it, advocating instead for the Malaysian people swap deal that it has been unable to implement because the High Court ruled it illegal.

Ms Gillard says the defence force has told her it can construct temporary facilities in both Nauru and Manus Island while the main centres are being prepared.

“That means that within a month we would hope to see people being processed in Nauru and in PNG,” she said, adding that the timetable was subject to the work of recon terms that could deploy as early as this Friday.

Initial facilities could involve tents, she said.

Ms Gillard also spoke with the leaders of Nauru and PNG on Tuesday, both of whom have agreed to host the processing centres again.

But not everyone in PNG is on board, with one prominent local politician – National Capital District Governor Powes Parkop – pledging to take legal action to stop the Manus Island facility being reopened.

Asylum seekers are likely to be forced to spend extended periods in Nauru and PNG under the government’s plan because it aims to ensure that those who board boats gain no advantage over those processed through regular channels.

Ms Gillard would not say whether she was comfortable with the prospect of asylum seekers being held offshore for up to 10 years.

The government would take careful advice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before determining any likely timeframes, she said.

Mr Abbott said the government should also embrace temporary protection visas and instruct the Navy to turn back boats when it is safe to do so.

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Filed under Asylum Policy, Australian Government and Opposition, Deportation

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