Gillard to Present Migration Law Changes After Court Ruling

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard, Australia's prime minister. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will present changes in Australia’s migration law to parliament after the High Court rejected her refugee policy in a blow to a government facing record-low approval ratings.

Gillard will submit a proposal to parliament next week to make it legal for the government to send asylum-seekers to another nation for their refugee claims to be processed there. The announcement came after the Cabinet and Labor party caucus held meetings today to discuss the rebuff of Gillard’s deal with Malaysia to process illegal immigrants to Australia.

"This proves her to be resolute and determined, with the ability to get the caucus behind her," said John Warhurst, a professor at Australian National University in Canberra. "But it leaves a lot of loose ends, including whether the change will pass parliament and whether it will improve her public standing."

Gillard is seeking to shore up support after her approval slumped six points to 32 percent in a Nielsen poll published in Fairfax Media Ltd. newspapers today, with the refugee issue deepening public dissatisfaction previously sparked by her efforts to rein in carbon pollution. Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, may have to depend on opposition support to get a bill through parliament.

‘Policy Failure’

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who has criticized the prime minister for failing to stem a flow of Asian boat people lured by Australian economic growth, said today his coalition would consider any legislative proposals from Gillard. The agreement with Malaysia has been a “proven policy failure,” Abbott said in an e-mailed statement.

The Labor party relies on the support of three independents and a Greens party member in the lower house and on the Greens in the upper-house Senate to pass legislation. Greens leader Bob Brown has said his party is against the proposed changes from Gillard, who has pledged to stay on and fight the next election, due in 2013.

“These amendments will provide for the government to proceed with transfers under the agreement with Malaysia,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra today. “They will ensure the government of the day can determine the border protection policy that it believes is in the best interest of the nation.”

Falling Approval

The drop in Gillard’s approval rating in the Nielsen poll follows a record-low 23 percent support level in a Newspoll survey published last week in the Australian. The prime minister’s public backing plummeted after News Ltd. newspapers, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s media enterprise, this month said that unnamed Labor party members wanted her to quit.

Senior Labor lawmakers -- including Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan, Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, and Defense Minister Stephen Smith -- have publicly rallied around Gillard, saying she is best positioned to head the party. Labor relies on independents and Greens to support its minority administration after the nation’s closest election result in 70 years in 2010.

Gillard will be leader of the Labor Party until the next election, Smith said yesterday on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s “Inside Business” program. Labor lawmakers have “made our judgments about leadership and I don’t believe there’s any enthusiasm on the part of the party to revisit those issues," he said.

Preferred Leader

Kevin Rudd, Gillard’s foreign minister and predecessor, is the preferred head of Labor, with 44 percent support compared with Gillard’s 19 percent, the Nielsen poll of 1,400 people showed. Support for the opposition Liberal-National coalition was 58 percent versus Labor’s 42 percent. Forty-eight percent said Abbott would be a better prime minister, compared with 40 percent who backed Gillard, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Gillard, 49, won the leadership after the party dumped Rudd because of a drop in poll ratings amid a battle with miners like BHP Billiton Ltd. over his plans for a 40 percent tax on resource profits and after he reneged on establishing a plan to control carbon emissions.

A small group of Labor members who backed Rudd in last year’s leadership battle is trying to convince colleagues that there will be no retribution should he return to power, reported Sept. 10, citing senior government officials it didn’t identify.

Gillard’s challenges have escalated since the High Court on Aug. 31 overturned the government’s July 25 agreement with Malaysia, saying it didn’t provide adequate protection for asylum seekers under international or domestic law.

‘People Smugglers’

The prime minister had said the arrangement -- under which Australia would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and would accept 4,000 people from that country who have been verified as legitimate refugees by the United Nations -- would ‘‘smash the business model of people smugglers.”

The court’s decision had made it unlikely that the processing could be carried out elsewhere outside Australia, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said on Sept. 4. Asylum seekers are currently processed at Christmas Island, between Indonesia and Australia’s west coast.

“This is a very challenging and difficult issue for the Labor party and the government, as it is for the nation,” Smith said yesterday. “The High Court has effectively changed the rules as far as offshore processing is concerned.”

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