PM Tries To Unscramble Asylum Message

PM tries to unscramble asylum message

By chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis
Updated Fri Jul 9, 2010 8:51pm AEST

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's plan for a regional processing centre for asylum seekers is struggling for traction and credibility.

While East Timorese politicians have given a lukewarm response to the idea of hosting the centre, Ms Gillard's real trouble has come from her own words.

Ms Gillard's scrambled asylum seeker message – combined with a failed egging attempt on the Prime Minister in Perth this morning – is another indication she is not getting the continuing dream run her backers had hoped for.

On Tuesday Ms Gillard announced she would be pursuing a regional processing centre, leaving the clear impression she wanted it to be in East Timor.

“In recent days I have discussed with president Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region,” she said.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans gave the same impression that night when he spoke to ABC's 7:30 Report.

“[Asylum seekers] if they arrive in Australia as unauthorised boat arrivals will be returned to East Timor – will be taken to the centre,” he said.

The next morning he was canvassing the possibility of other locations.

“It's certainly the starting point for a discussion, East Timor,” he said.

“But obviously it's about a regional solution and there may well be other alternatives.”

The Government did nothing in the days between the announcement and yesterday to dissuade people from thinking that East Timor was the Governments preferred location for the regional processing centre.

But by yesterday, with the reception in East Timor to her idea looking less than overwhelmingly supportive, Julia Gillard seemed to be backtracking.

“I'm not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location,” she said during an interview on Fairfax radio.

“What I've said is this: a consensus about a regional processing centre – where it would be, how it would work, all of those things would need to come out of the regional dialogue.”

She did not mention the possibility of East Timor being the location for the centre during that exchange.

This morning, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor was on board.

“It was on Tuesday the prime minister made clear she would be discussing this matter and had discussed the matter with the president of East Timor about the possibility of a regional processing centre,” he said.

“There had been no reference to where and there was certainly no… point made about exactly how this was to be done.”

'Couldn't be clearer'

But in Perth this morning, Ms Gillard was back to talking about East Timor while addressing a business breakfast.

“Earlier this week, I made the case that regional processing needs to be part of our long-term solution to unauthorised arrivals,” she said.

“I said in my speech that one possibility was a centre in East Timor.”

At a later doorstop she was not willing to canvass any other alternatives.

“Our focus here is on the dialogue with East Timor. I couldn't be clearer about that,” she said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says the Prime Minister has bungled.

“What we're seeing from this Prime Minister, as from her predecessor, is incompetence, deception and ideology,” he said.

Ms Gillard's office is explaining the confusion by saying that nothing has changed and when her working is looked at closely, it has all been consistent.

A spokesman says all Ms Gillard was pointing out yesterday was that there had been no announcement – that she cannot make a decision on behalf of another country.

The problem is she looked like she was backing away from the idea of having the processing centre in East Timor at a time when that country was sending lukewarm signals and she was under fire for having bungled the diplomacy.

With Ms Gillard now trying to unscramble the mixed messages, the perception that is left is one of confusion from a prime minister and a ministry rapidly trying to keep up with a changing situation.


Video: Gillard sticks to East Timor solution (7pm TV News NSW)
Audio: Asylum seeker policy confusion leaves egg on PM's face (PM)
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