28 June 2012

Immigration progress stalls as Senate blocks bill

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The debate over the best way to address the ongoing immigration issue in Australia looks set to continue after a possible solution was struck down by the Senate.

Australia immigration

The Australian Senate struck down independent MP Rob Oakeshott's proposal to allow offshore processing in any of 50 countries, bringing the debate back to a standstill.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott had tabled a proposal which would allow both the government and the opposition an opportunity to pursue their preferred solutions. The bill was passed through the House of Representatives late last night but failed to progress through the Senate, bringing the debate back to a standstill while the Australian parliament breaks for its winter recess.

The ongoing immigration debate has been fuelled by record levels of boat arrivals since the government's original proposal, the Malaysia Solution, was struck down by the High Court last year. The debate intensified last week when an Australia bound boat carrying an estimated 200 asylum seekers capsized in Indonesian water, leaving as many as 90 people dead.

The tragedy brought the issue back to the fore of national politics but the urgency in finding a solution to the issue intensified this week when a second boat carrying at least 130 more asylum seekers, capsized in a similar location; one passenger was confirmed dead and three were left unaccounted for when the search operation was abandoned.


The governing Labor Party want to alter legislation to allow their Malaysia Solution to become law. Under the Malaysia Solution, 800 asylum seekers would be taken to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 refugees. The law was struck down in the High Court last year amid concerns of Malaysia's poor record on human rights.

The opposing Coalition want to reinstate several policies of the previous Howard government which saw boat arrivals practically cease. These policies are considered much stricter and include offshore processing on Nauru, issuing temporary protection visas and escorting asylum seeking boats out of Indonesian waters.

The minority Greens party want to ban offshore processing completely and instead increase the country's refugee intake from approximately 16,000 to 25,000 a year.

The Argument

The government needs the opposition's support to allow the Malaysia Solution to pass but both the Coalition and the Greens refuse to allow offshore processing in a country which is not a signatory of the UN's Refugee Convention.

The Coalition have repeatedly told the government to reinstate their proven policies but the government argue that escorting boats out of Australian waters is inhumane and the temporary protection visa policy leaves asylum seekers in a cruel and uncertain predicament.

Talks between parties broke down in January and while boats have continued to arrive in record numbers, politicians have continued to blame their opponents for the worsening situation.

The Compromise

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott proposed his own solution in April which would allow offshore processing in any of the 50 countries which are members of the Bali Process, which includes both Malaysia and Nauru.

The bill was hastily re-tabled in the House of Representatives yesterday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an attempt to end the issue and avoid another disaster.

After a lengthy debate, the bill passed a vote by gaining support from three opposing MPs, although both Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young promised that the bill would face sterner opposition in the Senate.


Following another lengthy and emotional debate, the bill was struck down 39 votes to 29, bringing the issue, which temporarily looked to be progressing towards a solution, back to a deadlock.

"What we have here is a stalemate, not a solution," said Mr Abbott. "Australians have every right to feel let down by the government and the political system."

Mr Abbott, who had previously offered to increase the refugee intake to 20,000 before Ms Gillard tabled the bill in the House of Representatives, urged the government to consider the Coalition's proposal and vowed again not to support a bill which would permit offshore processing in Malaysia.

"The Coalition will never support Malaysia. Full stop, end of story."

Labor Senator Chris Evans, who was responsible for abandoning the Coalition's policies in 2007, said the vote was disappointing.

"People need to be accountable for how they vote today," said Senator Evans.

"I think we will let the Australian people down if we leave here today with an impasse, if we leave here today without a solution."

Politicians are now readying to leave for the six week winter recess and Liberal MP Mal Washer, who voted with the government in the House of Representatives, said a recess with no solution would cost more lives at sea:

"I don't think any of us want to go home knowing full well that more people are going to drown over the next six weeks while we're in recess. I don't think we can do that."

Julia Gillard

Ms Gillard, who called the vote in the House to find an urgent solution, has expressed her disappointment at the failed vote and attacked Mr Abbott for his obstinance.

"I understand how frustrating this all is for Australians," said Ms Gillard. "They rightly want to see us in this parliament work to get things done. They understand...that we need effective action to ensure that we deter people from getting on boats and risking their lives at sea.

"The Leader of the Opposition has said on many occasions that he wants to stop the boats. Tonight the opposition voted against stopping the boats."

Ms Gillard said a three-person group made up of independent experts would now be formed to find another solution to the problem 'as soon as possible'.

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

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