Howard Left Empty-Handed As Rebels Dig In On Migration Laws

Howard left empty-handed as rebels dig in on migration laws
Michael Gordon
June 22, 2006

Prime Minister John Howard will be unable to promise the passage of his hardline border protection policy when he meets Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday after rebel MPs stood firm last night.

The fate of legislation implementing the policy remained in doubt after the rebels rejected as inadequate several concessions laid out at a special party room meeting.

Mr Howard said last night the legislation would be voted on when Parliament resumes in August after the winter break, ruling out any changes affecting the “fundamental operation” of the plan to process boat arrivals on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.

The concessions include pledges that family groups and women and children will be housed in a community environment; that three-month time limits will be placed on processing refugee claims; and that the ombudsman will be given power to oversee processing.

Despite clear majority backing for the new laws, those who have opposed the changes remain unconvinced, insisting they would wind back reforms introduced last year after Mr Howard conceded the need for a more compassionate asylum seeker policy.

Victorian Liberal Petro Georgiou warned that the policy would put people in limbo on Nauru. Among others who raised concerns were Russell Broadbent, Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Brett Mason, Marise Payne and Barnaby Joyce.

The policy was framed after strong Indonesian protests over the granting of temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers.

While Mr Howard says he does not want refugees to be kept on Nauru indefinitely, he has refused to place any limit on how long they might wait for another country to take them. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone has agreed that those found to be refugees may be able to come to Australia for medical reasons, or because of strong family ties, but insists the preference will be to find other countries to take refugees.

She claims the changes mean a better deal for asylum seekers because the concessions will apply to those who land on offshore islands as well as those who make it to the mainland.

The changes were laid out without warning at a special meeting of Coalition MPs. Earlier, Senator Vanstone had been coy about plans for the legislation, telling the Senate: “I do know what is happening with the bill. Furthermore, I know when you are going to know, but it is not my place to tell you.”

Opponents remain concerned that proposed safeguards cannot be guaranteed by Australian legislation because Nauru is a sovereign country. They say it is unlikely that third countries will offer to take refugees processed by Australia.

Mr Baird told the meeting his experience of asylum seekers showed it was the uncertainty and the length of time spent waiting for resettlement that led to mental health problems.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, is expected to approach Australia and other countries soon to seek a solution for more than 220 asylum seekers who have been in limbo in Indonesia since 2001.