Sunday, July 11, 2010

Politicians fail to deliver on asylum seeker policy

ACV Sunday Comment
By Peter Hallett

Prime Minister Julia Gillard carefully attempted to stake out the high moral ground when she spoke about asylum seekers and other foreign policy issues in an address to the Lowey Institute last Tuesday.

Appealing for open debate, calling for people to refrain from demonising others with different views and suggesting a regional approach to asylum seekers, for a few moments she was at her convincing best.

But as the detail (or lack of) in her policies sank in, it became obvious that not only was she was pushing the same policy for which she has lambasted the Opposition - overseas processing of asylum seekers - she was in danger of replaying the mistakes of the Rudd Government - great sounding policy and no capacity to carry it out.

In the week following the announcement, it became clear that East Timor was far from united in support of the idea, and when Papua New Guinea was suggested as an alternative, that nation gave an even colder response.

And a good clue was given as to where the Prime Minister's real concerns lay when she appeared, some would say cynically, on the deck of a navy patrol ship with none other than David Bradbury, the Labor member for the marginal seat of Lindsay in Sydney's west.

As Ms Gillard's asylum seeker policy unravelled, even Senator Stephen Fielding's idea of returning 'illegal' asylum seekers to the back of the queue in refugee camps and bringing two refugees to Australia in their place started to look plausible.

And with Opposition leader Tony Abbott left vulnerable by comments that implied he might authorise the towing out to sea of refugees in leaky boats, it became clear Australia is unlikely to see sensible policy on this issue with an election so near.

One thing Ms Gillard got right - both appropriate border protection and compassionate treatment of asylum seekers are valid concerns. The best possible solution would be to remove this debate from the political arena and give it into the hands of those with serious expertise and legitimate concern. Now that would be statesman-like.

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