Gillard’s Bid to Break Asylum-Seeker Deadlock Looks Set to Fail

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s bid for legislation against people smuggling before a six-week parliamentary hiatus looks set to fail amid reports of a third boat carrying refugees in distress in a week.

The bill’s defeat in the Senate would be “very, very disappointing,” Gillard said in a Channel 9 interview today. “That means that our nation cannot have at its disposal the most effective means of sending the strongest possible message we want.” Another boat of asylum seekers may be in danger after a fatal incident yesterday, she said without elaborating.

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

“The voters are sick of the issue and want a clear policy from the government to fix it,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. “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.”

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 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

Legislation backed by Gillard’s Labor party to allow the processing of asylum seekers on Australian soil as well as in countries including Malaysia and Nauru passed the lower house yesterday. The bill, proposed by independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott, passed with a so-called sunset clause, an amendment allowing it to be reviewed after a year of operation.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where the Greens hold the balance of power and have said they will oppose it, along with the Liberal-National opposition.

The bill won’t pass the Senate due to opposition from the Greens, who oppose all offshore processing of refugees, opposition leader Tony Abbott said yesterday. His coalition won’t support it because it includes the option of creating a processing center in Malaysia, which isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Abbott said.

War-Torn Nations

While both Gillard’s Labor and Abbott’s coalition have supported offshore processing centers, they have failed to agree on where they should be based.

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

“My gut feeling is this will fall over in the Senate,” Liberal lawmaker Mal Washer said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio interview today. More refugees will die before parliament creates the right policy to combat people smugglers, he said.

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 entering Australian waters was acceptable in some circumstances.

Agreement Stymied

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.

“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.

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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