Gillard Aims to Break Asylum-Seeker Deadlock as Boat Sinks

A boat carrying asylum seekers fleeing to Australia capsized in Indonesian waters, triggering a bid by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to rush legislation against people smuggling through parliament.

Laws proposed by independent legislator Rob Oakeshott and backed by Gillard’s Labor party to allow the processing of refugees on Australian soil as well as in countries including Malaysia and Nauru passed the lower house today. The legislation will now go to the upper house, where the Greens hold the balance of power and have said they will oppose it.

Gillard’s minority Labor government is trying to resolve a political stalemate over where to base offshore processing centers for refugees who pay smugglers in Indonesia thousands of dollars to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia. The nation’s first female prime minister, trailing in opinion polls, has lacked support in parliament to amend laws on the issue ahead of elections due by November 2013.

“Resolving this would help show she’s a strong leader and help her be seen as the one who’s setting the agenda, and that’s what she really needs to do to gain momentum before the next election,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. “The voters are sick of the issue and want a clear policy from the government to fix it.”

Too Much Tragedy

The boat that capsized today was carrying as many as 150 people with 125 rescued and one dead, according to Australian Customs. There have been at least four fatal incidents of human trafficking since 2010, most recently on June 21 when about 90 people may have died when a boat sank near Christmas Island, an Australian territory used as an immigration detention center.

“We have seen too much tragedy,” Gillard told lawmakers in the capital of Canberra. “The time for the party divide on this issue is at an end.”

While both Gillard’s Labor and Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition have supported offshore processing centers for people fleeing war-torn nations, they have failed to agree on where they should be based.

Abbott’s Opposition

Gillard is looking to push the legislation through both houses of parliament before it starts a six-week hiatus from the end of tomorrow. The laws passed the lower house with a so-called sunset clause, an amendment that will allow for them to be reviewed after a year of operation.

The bill won’t pass the Senate due to opposition from the Greens, who oppose all offshore processing of refugees, Abbott said today. The opposition refused to support Oakeshott’s legislation because it included the option of creating a processing center in Malaysia, which isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Abbott said.

A group of lawmakers, including independent members who support the minority government, are pressuring party leaders to reach a compromise. The refugees are often from war-torn nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

Nauru Center

Abbott’s coalition wants a processing center re-established in Nauru, an island nation in the South Pacific with about 10,000 residents that received aid in return for processing refugees bound for Australia under former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution. He said today turning back boats from entering Australian waters was acceptable in some circumstances.

Gillard had proposed an arrangement with Malaysia under which Australia would send about 800 asylum seekers to the nation in return for accepting 4,000 people verified as legitimate refugees by the United Nations. That plan failed in parliament in October, after the High Court in August declared it illegal.

Safeguards Urged

“UNHCR calls on Australia and countries in the region to redouble their efforts to provide safer and more secure options for people to find protection other than through these dangerous and exploitative boat journeys,” the UN Refugee Agency said in a June 22 statement.

Maritime officials are coordinating the rescue effort after receiving a distress call at about 6 a.m. Sydney time today from a boat that capsized about 200 kilometers north of Christmas Island, Jo Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said by telephone.

Two years after ousting her predecessor Kevin Rudd, the party of Australia’s first female prime minister is slipping further behind the Liberal-National opposition in opinion polls.

Labor’s primary vote fell 1 percentage point to 30 percent, while support for the coalition increased 2 points to 46 percent, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper June 25.

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