22 June 2012

Opposition MP implores party to negotiate after asylum seeker disaster

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After another disaster which has seen more people die at sea in a desperate bid for asylum in Australia, a member of the opposition has pleaded with his party to negotiate with the government to prevent a further tragedy.

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MPs have called on Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott to work together to find a solution which will prevent disasters similar to yesterday from happening again.

Talks between the government and opposition over the asylum seeking issue broke down at the start of the year; the government refuses to reinstate some of their predecessors' staunch, albeit successful, policies while the opposition refuses to negotiate legislation which would allow the government's people swap deal with Malaysia, the Malaysia Solution, to pass after it was struck down in the High Court last year.

Meanwhile record numbers of asylum seekers have continued to arrive in Australian waters; already this month more than double the number budgeted for have reached the country. While the rising numbers increases pressure on the country's detention facilities, leading to the risk of the riots similar to those which resulted in a Sydney detention centre being torched in April 2011, immigration advocates have repeatedly stated that a failure to negotiate a solution will lead to a more serious disaster.

Yesterday that prediction came true.


Indonesian authorities received a distress call yesterday from an asylum seeking boat bound for Christmas Island. Initial estimates put the number of passengers at 100; this was later revised to 200, all male passengers. After Australian authorities requested access to Indonesian airspace to assist with the search and rescue operation, the first aircraft arriving on site reported as many as 40 people clinging to the capsized hull of the boat and many more in the water.

So far authorities have reported 110 survivors of unknown nationality, including one 13 year old boy, pulled from the sea and taken to the immigration centre on Christmas Island. It's believed approximately 90 people are still missing; three bodies have already been recovered.

Search and rescue authorities are still hopeful that more survivors will be found, claiming the moderate temperatures of the water make survival more likely.

"We're still in that critical window where more lives could be saved," said Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Claire.


With the disaster coming just one day after World Refugee Day, the UN has said the tragedy highlights the lengths desperation will push people to go to, risking their lives on overcrowded, unsafe boats.

"This accident again underscores the dangerous nature of these hazardous journeys, and the desperate and dangerous measures people will resort to the when they are fleeing persecution in their home countries," said a statement from the UN refugee agency.

If this tragedy is to be the catalyst in breaking the stalemate between the government and opposition, the opposing Liberal Party appears to be the first to blink as Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer has called on his party's leader, Tony Abbott, and the opposition immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, to 'put decency over politics' and come up with a solution to prevent such tragedies happening again.

"I think Tony Abbott is a humane guy and he would have been devastated to hear of these people lost out there," said Dr Washer.

"Tony has got a heart of gold and so has Scott Morrison and so have the people in the Labor Party."

Dr Washer said the intense pressure of the issue in the current hung parliament had prevented a solution from being found but urged Mr Abbott to reconsider the government's Malaysia Solution, saying "let's put that back on the table".

The Malaysia Solution proposes taking 800 new asylum seeking arrivals from Australia to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 bona fide refugees. The deal was struck down in the Australian High Court in August 2011, an announcement that was welcomed by human rights advocates citing Malaysia's poor record on the issue. Prime Minister Julia Gillard criticised the court and vowed to update the law to pass the Solution.

However, to do this, Ms Gillard's governing Labor Party needs the opposing Coalition to cooperate, something they have repeatedly refused to do. Both parties have continued to blame each other for the situation; an argument former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a 'race to to the bottom of the barrel'.

While boats continue to arrive and fuel the ongoing debate, yesterday's disaster has highlighted the urgent need for a permanent solution to be negotiated.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott laid the blame at Scott Morrison, the opposition's spokesperson for immigration policy:

"It's really for, in my view, Scott Morrison to start think about what on Earth he is doing on behalf of national policy by blocking this for political gain," said Mr Oakeshott.

"[He is] absolutely sitting on his hands and saying it is not the Coalition's role to try and fix this, that this is somehow an impasse of the government's making.

"If that is his position, get out of the way."


Mr Morrison, Mr Abbott and the prime minister have all refused to comment on a possible return to negotiations over the issue, claiming the focus should remain on the ongoing search and rescue operation.

"Rob Oakeshott's focus seems to be elsewhere today, which is disappointing," said Mr Morrison.

Mr Abbott said it wasn't the time for political point scoring, but took the opportunity to mention the Howard-era policies which saw boat arrivals practically stop and which the Coalition have been pushing as an alternative to the Malaysia Solution.

"Well, we did have a solution some years ago, and that was the great achievement of the Howard government," said Mr Abbott. "The Howard government had a problem on its hand in the early 2000s; it put some policies in place that did stop the boats.

"Now unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons which I won't go into today, the flow has started again. And yes, it does have to be dealt with but today is certainly not a day for political point scoring and argy-bargy.

"It's a day for human sympathy for everyone caught up in this terrible disaster and support and encouragement for the rescue effort."

Ms Gillard, speaking from Brazil where she is attending Rio+20 summit, echoed Mr Abbott's comments and refused to comment on possible negotiations.

"Our focus now is on the search and rescue effort."

Mr Oakeshott remains unconvinced and claims the issue could be resolved quickly if politicians were willing to put 'toxic politics before all else':

"There must be a way through. There always is."

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