29 June 2012

Ex-military chief to head asylum seeker task force

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard has confirmed that the former Defence Chief, Angus Houston, will head the three person group tasked to find a solution to the ongoing asylum seeker issue in Australia.

Australia immigration

The asylum seeker debate has dominated Australian politics in the last week.

The debate over how to deal with the increasing rate of asylum seekers arriving in Australia has steadily fuelled political debate in recent months but the issue came to a head this week when a second boat carrying 134 passengers capsized on its way to Australia, less than a week after another boat carrying an estimated 200 capsized, killing as many as 90 people.

Both the governing Labor Party and the opposing Coalition have their own policies to address the problem but as both also strongly oppose the others', a political deadlock has remained in place since talks broke down in January.

Both parties want to use offshore processing as a deterrent to potential asylum seekers but disagree on the location; the government want to do it in Malaysia, the opposition in Nauru. The Coalition opposes the government's proposal as Malaysia hasn't signed the UN's Refugee Convention while the government claims parts of the Coalition's proposal, such as temporary protection visas and escorting asylum seeking boats out of Australian waters, are cruel and unnecessary.

However, with the threat of another tragedy just one week after one of the worst in recent memory, it looked as though a compromise had been reached when independent MP Rob Oakeshott's bill, which would permit sections of both parties' proposals, scraped through a vote in the House of Representatives.

The bill's passing was hailed as a victory for Ms Gillard but Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott promised it would not make it through the Senate. Mr Abbott's prediction came true when the bill was heavily defeated after a lengthy and emotional debate and bringing the issue back to a lurching halt.

Ms Gillard expressed her disappointment at the vote and once again took the opportunity to criticise Mr Abbott for the resumed stalemate but announced she would form a three person panel to investigate all possible solutions to the problem.

The panel, which will have access to all policy recommendations and alternatives proposed by all parties, will include former Department of Foreign Affairs chief Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle, a renowned advocate for refugees. The panel will be headed by Angus Houston, who was a member of the Australian Air Force for over 40 years, serving as Chief of the Defence Force until July, 2011.

Ms Gillard said the panel will be free to seek advice from any charity or non-government organisation as well as any governmental department or politician; the group will report back to her and the public after the six week winter recess parliament has just begun is over.

Both parties risk having their own proposals scuttled by the group yet Ms Gillard says the urgency of issue requires an unbiased approach towards finding a solution.

"I am asking eminent Australians of huge capacity to apply their intellect, their judgement, to this question and to provide a public report," said the prime minister upon announcing the formation of the group.

"I would only be doing that if I think their views are of the utmost significance."

The prime minister may be prepared to heed the group's advice but did not promise to abandon her own preferred solution should the group reject it.

Mr Abbott has been careful not to insult the prominent members of the group but has accused Ms Gillard of 'outsourcing' duties which she has ultimate responsibility.

"Over the next six weeks, the prime minister can do nothing or she can do something," said Mr Abbott, who urged the prime minister to "get cracking with building those centres at Nauru and PNG.

"If legislation really is needed to do that, that legislation will be passed by the parliament as soon as it comes back in August but this committee is not a solution, this is outsourcing the prime ministership."

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

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