CANBERRA, Sept 20 — Australia may have to resume dealing with asylum seekers on its mainland because proposals to move their processing overseas are being blocked by the opposition and by legal obstacles, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said today.
In a fresh blow to the minority government, opposition leader Tony Abbott has refused to support a deal to process asylum seekers in Malaysia because the Southeast Asian nation had not signed the UN refugee convention.
Abbott’s opposition means the Malaysia plan will be defeated in a parliamentary vote after it is introduced tomorrow, with the government then being forced to deal with asylum seekers on the Australian mainland, Gillard (picture) said.
“The logical conclusion of Mr Abbott’s slamming the door on the national interest is that offshore processing is at risk in its entirety,” she told Australian radio.
Australia, a nation of about 23 million people, receives up to a few thousand asylum seekers by boat each year, stirring intense political debate over border security.
Ten years ago, Canberra began sending asylum seekers to the Pacific island of Nauru to discourage new arrivals, ushering in a decade of public division over tough immigration laws. But now, Gillard said, the rejection of the new proposals could see Australia again processing refugees onshore.
The defeat of her proposals will be a major setback for the embattled prime minister, who is trailing badly in opinion polls.
Under the Malaysian deal, Australia planned to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia where their refugee claims would be assessed in return for accepting 4,000 refugees from Malaysia.
But, on August 31, the High Court ruled the deal was invalid because Canberra could not ensure protection for asylum seekers sent to Malaysia, leaving Gillard with little option but to gain opposition conservative support for changing immigration laws.
Gillard, who has been fending off speculation about her leadership after the court ruling, faces opposition on offshore processing from the Greens, who hold the balance of power in parliament, while Abbott’s conservatives want to reopen a detention centre on Nauru.
A poll in The Australian newspaper today showed primary voting support for Gillard’s Labor Party had sunk to a record low of 26 per cent, while the Newspoll showed conservatives on track to wipe out the government at 2013 elections with a 58 per cent to 42 per cent lead on a two-party basis.
The conservatives in 2001 introduced an immigration policy known as the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers were sent to detention camps on small Pacific island nations, rather than allowed to land on the Australian mainland.
Despite defeat being almost certain, Gillard said she would test support for her re-shaped Malaysia plan in Parliament, where the government has a one-seat buffer only thanks to independent and Greens support.
The likely rebuff could again damage her authority and reinforce public perceptions that her leadership is ineffective, despite the government having a solid record on passing laws since dead-heat elections last year.
But Gillard said the failed vote could instead rebound on Abbott, a combative former Catholic seminarian, as she believed Australians were looking for a government willing to take tough decisions and “put politics aside” on border security. — Reuters