Colin Barnett Angered By Asylum Surprise

Colin Barnett angered by asylum surprise

By Paige Taylor
The Australian, June 16, 2010

An agricultural college in the West Australian wheatbelt town of Northam is the latest site being eyed by the Rudd government as a potential home for asylum-seekers from Christmas Island.

But negotiations with the state government, which owns the site, are likely to be tense after Premier Colin Barnett learned of the Rudd government's interest in the college only yesterday and accused it of behaving in an unnecessarily secretive way.

Muresk Agricultural College's Northam campus caught the attention of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship partly because Curtin University is poised to shut it.

The college has fewer than 90 full-time equivalent students and needs more than 200 to be viable.

The 17,000sq m teaching farm is 90km east of Perth and has residential accommodation for 150 students and 20 staff.

Curtin University of Technology vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket confirmed yesterday that the department had made an approach earlier this month and 'indicated it was interested in potentially using the university's Northam campus to house asylum-seekers'.

Mr Barnett, who wrote to Immigration Minister Chris Evans last month objecting to his plan to send asylum-seeker families to Leonora, was clearly annoyed when he found out about the approach to Muresk at about noon yesterday.

'The federal government has again been caught sneaking around regional areas without seeking the assistance or advice of the West Australian state government,' he said.

'I remind the federal government that the state is prepared to approach this issue in a constructive, sensible way. The unnecessarily secretive way they are going about it will simply delay the process. Despite the continued attempts to keep the state government out of the process, we are still happy to work with the federal government.'

The Australian has been told Mr Barnett remains disappointed that Senator Evans went ahead with the Leonora proposal this month.

Twenty-one families are staying in transportable cabins, but Mr Barnett has said asylum-seeker accommodation should be purpose-built and not temporary.

Senator Evans has also ruled out what The Australian understands was Mr Barnett's suggestion that asylum-seeker families could be housed in the midwest community of Tardun, about 430km northeast of Perth.

There, the Christian Brothers are trying to sell or lease their 215sq km former farm school and the Pallotine Fathers and Brothers are trying to sell or lease the property they previously ran as Wandalgu Aboriginal Hostel.

The Australian understands Senator Evans' department ruled out both sites because it would cost millions of dollars to make necessary alterations and bring buildings up to standard.

Tardun's history also makes it an unpopular choice with some refugee advocates — the Christian Brothers' property was one of four institutions where English child migrants were subjected to brutality, harsh work regimes and in some cases sexual abuse.