Asylum seeker laws still in limbo
August 8, 2006 – 10:49AM
Prime Minister John Howard has pleaded with backbenchers to maintain party unity as government MPs threaten to cross the floor over new hardline boat people asylum seeker laws.
The issue will be debated in federal parliament on Wednesday, but at least four backbenchers told a coalition meeting they did not support the new laws.
Mr Howard has ruled out making any more changes to accommodate their concerns, but urged them to abstain from voting rather than cross the floor of parliament.
“We're now more than halfway to the next election. We're not tracking too badly, but each election gets tougher as memories fade of the previous government and expectations rise for the government,” a party room spokesman quoted the prime minister as telling the meeting.
“We have to go ahead with it, we should go ahead with it.
“If you have reservations, please do not vote with the Labor Party.”
The rebel backbenchers do not have the numbers to prevent the bill passing the lower house, although they could scuttle it in the Senate.
At least three crucial senators – including two from the government – are yet to support the plan to send all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat to island detention centres like Nauru for processing.
One Liberal senator, Judith Troeth, is standing firm against the bill, while Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce says he may push for amendments.
“Supporting the legislation and calling for amendments are two different things – there may be a reason for amendments and we'll be looking at that when it arrives (in the Senate),” he said.
But if the Queensland senator decides to side with the government on the issue, Senator Troeth would only need the support of Family First senator Steve Fielding to tie the vote in the upper house and have the bill thrown out.
Both sides are now courting Senator Fielding, who met Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone on Monday to discuss the issue, but is undecided.
“Family First believe Australians want a strong system, but a fair system,” Senator Fielding told Sky News.
“What I mean by 'strong' is that people want a strong system in deciding who comes to Australia and who stays here, but they also want a fair system.
“That means that all people are treating fairly.”
Victorian Liberal MPs Russell Broadbent and Petro Georgiou, along with West Australian MP Judi Moylan and NSW Liberal Bruce Baird are among those opposed to the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill.
They are worried the legislation will overturn a key concession won from the government last year – keeping women and children out of detention.
They are also concerned boat people held offshore will be blocked from accessing legal and appeals processes that have enabled other refugees to settle in Australia.
But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer defended the bill and said the dissenters were in a small minority.
“I don't want to see people using Australia to … make political points and getting international publicity, scoring off our country and off Indonesia or other countries in the world when those claims might not be terribly credible,” he said.
The legislation was drafted following Indonesian anger over Australia's decision to grant asylum to 42 asylum seekers from Indonesia's contested Papua province earlier this year.