Australia’s government changed its policy on handling asylum seekers because it’s in the national interest, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.
“We stood on a policy of not having offshore processing but we’re seeing large numbers of people losing their lives at sea because they are enticed by people smugglers,” Gillard told Sky News’s Australian Agenda yesterday. “Have I compromised? Yes I have, and I’ve done that in the nation’s interest.”
Parliament passed laws Aug. 17 to reopen offshore detention centers on the South Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for refugees attempting to reach Australia by boat. Gillard is trying to resolve an issue that has dogged her government as it battles to claw back from near record-low approval ratings before elections due next year.
“We’ve got to be very clear with asylum seekers that they will get no advantage by having paid a people smuggler,” Gillard said. Refugees could be in the camps for “an extended period of time” as their applications are processed, she said.
The minority Labor government has come under attack from the Liberal-National opposition as increasing numbers of refugees pay Indonesian smugglers to ferry them to Australia in overcrowded boats, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Almost 1,000 asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001, former Defense Force chief Angus Houston said Aug. 13 in delivering a report that was the catalyst for Gillard deciding to reopen the camps. Fatalities have accelerated in the past three years, with 604 people losing their lives since October 2009, he said.
Processing refugees offshore would mark a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution, which was scrapped after Labor won office in 2007.
While a poll published Aug. 7 showed support for Labor 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 Tony Abbott’s coalition dropped one point to 45 percent, the Newspoll for the Australian newspaper showed.
The government has teams in Papua New Guinea and Nauru assessing the cost of work needed to reopen the camps, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Aug. 18.
“There is a considerable amount of work to be done,” he told reporters. “Those who argued that there was a detention facility at Nauru ready to go, that could be rebuilt at no or minimal cost, are incorrect.”
People will stay in the camps for the same time as it would take to have an asylum application processed by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, Gillard said.
“The message to people is: If you do get on the boat you won’t get any advantage,” she said. “It’s a tough policy.”
The government continues to develop education and health policies, including a disability insurance plan, to be presented in its budget before the election, Gillard told Sky.
“We will work hard to ensure we are dealing with savings, dealing with priorities in the government budget so that the budget is in surplus as promised,” she said. “We live in limited fiscal times and so you have to be prudent with every dollar, and we are.”
The government remains in talks on altering the floor price of carbon, and is continuing to work on business taxation changes that could lower the company tax rate in a revenue-neutral way, Gillard said.