Australian Premier’s Bid to Break Asylum-Seeker Deadlock Fails

Australia’s Senate rejected a bill backed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to process a tide of asylum seekers, dealing a new blow to the minority government leader unable to break a political stalemate over the refugees.

Lawmakers with the Greens joined the Liberal-National opposition in rejecting proposals to allow asylum-seekers to be processed in Malaysia and Nauru. Gillard ordered an independent committee to find a solution after more refugees died yesterday.

“I understand how frustrating this is,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra today. “All Australians understand, following the period in which we’ve seen the loss of so many lives, that we need effective action to ensure that we deter people from getting on boats and risking their lives at sea.”

The parliamentary defeat is another setback for Australia’s first female prime minister, seeking to address the arrival of refugees who pay smugglers in Indonesia to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia. Gillard, trailing in opinion polls, faces elections due by November 2013.

Four people were presumed dead and 130 rescued after a boat sank yesterday, according to Australian Customs. There have been at least four other fatal incidents of human trafficking since 2010, including on June 21 when about 90 people may have died after a boat capsized near Christmas Island, an Australian territory used as an immigration detention center.

Senate Opposition

“Australians are getting fed up with the endless pontificating of politicians and party opportunism in the face of tragedy,” Greg Barns, the president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said in an e-mailed statement today.

Two years after ousting her predecessor Kevin Rudd, Gillard’s Labor party 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 survey published in the Australian newspaper June 25.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said his coalition wouldn’t support the laws because they included the option of creating a processing center in Malaysia, which isn’t a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.

“We do not have a solution, but a stalemate,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra after the vote. “The Australian public is entitled to feel badly let down by the government. The prime minister goes into the parliamentary recess without an effective policy and the boats keep coming.”

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 yesterday turning back boats from Australian waters was acceptable in some circumstances.

Ausralia’s lower house approved the legislation yesterday. The refugees are often from war-torn nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

In a June 22 statement the UN Refugee agency called on Australia and other countries in the region “to provide safer and more secure options for people to find protection other than through these dangerous and exploitative boat journeys.”

Gillard had earlier proposed an arrangement agreed to by 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 UN. That plan failed in parliament in October, after the High Court in August declared it illegal.

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