18 July 2012

Australian immigration row threatens to topple Julia Gillard, again

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Just five months after Prime Minister Julia Gillard quashed her predecessor's attempt to usurp her position, the ongoing asylum seeker debate in Australia looks set to ignite a fresh leadership battle.

Australia immigration

Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd could be set for a third leadership battle if the Australian immigration issue continues to worsen.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted as PM in June 2010 by Ms Gillard following a leadership spill but remained a popular member of the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP) and even gained a place in Ms Gillard's cabinet as minister for foreign affairs.

However, as the ongoing asylum seeking issue in Australia began to worsen following the breakdown of cross-party negotiations in December 2011, Mr Rudd reportedly became frustrated with his party's harder line on the issue and Ms Gillard's inability to find a solution.

Mr Rudd resigned his ministerial position in February and issued a public challenge to the prime minister, promising to 'finish the job' he started and blaming the 'faceless men' for his removal. Ms Gillard called a leadership ballot on 27 February, promising to return to backbench politics if her claim was unsuccessful, Mr Rudd also promised not to seek the leadership again should he lose.

The subsequent vote fell in favour of Ms Gillard, 71 votes to 31; Mr Rudd reiterated his promise and said he was support Ms Gillard in any other leadership contest.

Bad to worse

Since February's leadership spill, the asylum seeker issue in Australia has continued to spiral out of control, finally reaching disastrous levels when the capsizing of two Australia-bound asylum seeking boats in a week resulted in the deaths of 94 people.

The double-disaster triggered an emergency political discussion to find a suitable deterrent to the problem but despite a bill making it through the House of Representatives, it failed to make it through the Senate and parliament broke for its six week winter break without a solution in place.

A solution has been hard to find as any proposal needs the backing of politicians from other parties. Both the ALP and the opposing Coalition favour offshore processing but refuse to negotiate on the location; the Coalition oppose the ALP's preferred destination of Malaysia as it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention while the ALP oppose the Coalition's proposal as it also includes the controversial policy of escorting asylum seeking boats out of Australian waters.

Ms Gillard therefore required the support of the Australian Greens but as they oppose offshore processing of any kind and instead want the country's refugee intake dramatically increased, no party has been able to secure a solution.

Expert Panel

The prime minister has ordered the formation of an expert panel, headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston, to find a solution everyone will be happy with by the time parliament reconvenes in August.

Politically-savvy people smugglers have reportedly been monitoring the ongoing situation and have ramped up their activities in the hope of exploiting the stalemate before a solution can be found.

However, Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott has refused to participate in the panel, Greens Leader Christine Milne has contributed but has stated her refusal to move her party's position and even Ms Gillard, who order the panel's creation, has said she will not necessarily agree with any recommendation the panel finds.

With June officially being the worst month on record for boat arrivals and five boats arriving in under 24 hours yesterday making 2012 look set to be the worst year on record, it could be that the expert panel is the final straw for Ms Gillard's premiership.


The Australian public's patience has worn thin by the ongoing debacle and polls have shown that a majority favour the Coalition and Mr Abbott as prime minister, particularly when it comes to the Coalition's handling of the asylum seeker issue.

The Coalition insists a much tougher approach to the issue is the only way to effectively handle the problem. During the previous, Coalition led, Howard government, the policies Mr Abbott advocates saw boat arrivals fall to practically zero.

The ALP's approval ratings, particularly Ms Gillard's, have fallen to desperate lows, at times lower than Kevin Rudd's when he was replaced, and with Labor's primary vote stuck around 30%, Ms Gillard's days could be numbered.


Appearing on the Australian Q&A programme on Monday, Labor MP and Chief Government Whip Joel Fitzgibbon ignited what could be a consequential debate:

"People aren't mugs," said Mr Fitzgibbon. "It's a historical fact that political leaders who poll badly long enough don't remain political leaders."

Since gaining only 31 votes in February, Mr Rudd's support has reportedly grown substantially and will only continue to improve if Ms Gillard's ratings don't.

Even Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott was complimentary of Mr Rudd. After attending the American-Australian Leadership and Dialogue sessions in the US together, Mr Abbott praised Mr Rudd's professionalism.

"Kevin Rudd has been doing what you'd think a former prime minister and a former foreign minister ought to do at a conference like this," said the Coalition leader.

"I have to say the contributions that I've heard from Kevin Rudd have been highly sophisticated and very much to the point."

Ms Gillard has so far refused to comment on the speculation and Mr Rudd has previously said the ALP would need to 'come get' him if he were to return as leader.

There are other aspects influencing the growing doubt of Ms Gillard's capabilities as PM but with confidence in Mr Rudd's leadership abilities growing, the incumbent must be hoping her expert panel finds a solution to the asylum seeking issue.

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian Embassy.

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