Gillard Refugee Backflip Wins Australia Opposition Support

Australia is poised to reopen an asylum-seeker processing center in Nauru after the opposition said it supports the policy backflip by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who’s betting the move will help her boost flagging poll ratings before elections due next year.

“The government has backed down,” opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio as Parliament resumes after a six-week break. “We’ve been asking the prime minister to do this for four years.”

Gillard said yesterday she plans to legislate this week to allow refugees to be processed on the South Pacific island of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea after a report she commissioned backed such a move. The nation’s first female prime minister is trying to end a parliamentary stalemate over the issue that has deflected her minority Labor Party’s attempts to promote a new carbon tax and a planned increase in education spending.

“Getting the laws through will be a circuit-breaker and gives the government a chance to move onto other issues it wants to sell,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “Whether voters want to listen to this government anymore is another matter.”

While a poll published Aug. 7 showed support for her Labor government rose to the highest level in six months, Gillard is still tracking toward defeat in next year’s elections. Labor’s primary vote increased five points to 33 percent from two weeks before, while support for opposition leader Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition dropped one point to 45 percent, the Newspoll for the Australian newspaper showed.

Refugee Deaths

Processing refugees in Nauru, an island nation with about 10,000 residents, would mark a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution that was scrapped after Labor won office in 2007. Since then, hundreds of asylum seekers have died at sea as an increasing number of refugees pay smugglers in Indonesia to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia.

“The time for politics is over, the time for action is here,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra, where the lower house adjourned today without the laws being passed. The government is seeking approval for the legislation in parliament by the end of the week, she said. It is seeking to start offshore processing at temporary facilities in the Asian nations, which have agreed to the proposals, within a month, Gillard said.

Angus Houston, a former defense force chief who compiled the report backing the move, said more than 600 asylum seekers have died trying to reach Australia since October 2009 and that to do nothing was “unacceptable.”

Report’s Recommendations

Gillard said she backs all 22 recommendations in Houston’s report, including increasing Australia’s refugee intake to 20,000 and seeking discussions with Malaysia to create an offshore processing center there.

The report also recommended refugees who arrived on boats be prevented from sponsoring family members to join them in Australia -- similar to a previous coalition policy overturned by Labor.

Abbott today said the opposition wouldn’t support a center in Malaysia because it isn’t a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.

“I welcome the prime minister’s last-minute conversion to common sense,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra. “It should have come much, much earlier than it has and I think the fact that the prime minister has held out for so long against what was obviously common sense will raise, yet again, questions about her judgment.”

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