SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard unveiled a new asylum policy on Tuesday aimed at allaying voter fears about rising boatpeople numbers ahead of elections, with the centrepiece a possible East Timor processing centre.
Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott also released his asylum policy on Tuesday, saying he would “turn back the boats” by restoring the “Pacific Solution” of mandatory offshore island detention and temporary protection visas for boatpeople arrivals.
There are only 4,251 unauthorised arrivals in Australian detention currently, but while the numbers are small, border protection is a “hot button” issue with voters, which saw conservative parties win a stunning election victory in 2001.
Last month, the asylum seeker issue saw the ruling Labor party lose a key state by-election in western Sydney.
Gillard rejected charges her new policy was aimed at “rednecks in marginal seats”, with marginal seats in mortgage belt Australia likely to determine the election expected in August. Gillard is on course for a narrow victory.
But she conceded that the mortgage belt suburbs of outer Sydney and Melbourne had legitimate concerns when it came to rising population pressures, stretching infrastructure.
“It is wrong to label people who have concerns about unauthorised arrivals as ‘rednecks’,” Gillard said in a speech in Sydney on Tuesday.
“There are racists in every country but expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist,” she said.
“For too long, the asylum seeker policy debate (in Australia) has been polarised by extreme, emotionally-charged claims.”
Gillard said she had held discussions with East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta and the United Nations about establishing a regional asylum processing centre in East Timor.
“The government’s policy goal is ... to wreck the people smuggling trade by removing the incentive for boats to leave their port of origin (and) ... to remove both the profitability of the trade and the danger of the voyage,” Gillard said.
“Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre,” she said.
“TURN BACK THE BOATS”
Conservative parties won the 2001 poll in which border protection was the key issue and then implemented a hardline “Pacific Solution” of detaining asylum seekers on Pacific and Indian Ocean island camps.
When Labor won office at the end of 2007 it ended the “Pacific Solution” and mandatory detention of asylum seekers, but kept a Christmas Island detention centre in the Indian Ocean and this year opened an outback camp to cope with rising numbers.
“My message to voters from now until polling day will be that if you want to stop the boats you have to change the government,” Abbott said on Tuesday.
Aid and humanitarian groups questioned the government’s new asylum policy and outrightly rejected the opposition’s policy.
“If what the government has in mind is simply a re-badged Pacific Solution then this is ... unacceptable,” said Amnesty International Australia’s National Director Claire Mallins.
Gillard said offshore wars and unrest drove asylum seekers, not domestic policies of detention. She said Australian police working with Asian counterparts had prevented more than 5,000 people illegally reaching Australia since September.
Outlining her new policy, Gillard said Australia would lift a suspension on processing asylum claims for Sri Lankans, after a U.N. report overnight said Tamils were no longer at risk, but that a suspension on Afghan claims would remain.
Australia’s prime minister said in a move to strengthen border protection, eight new patrol boats would be commissioned to join 18 ships and 18 aircraft patrolling Australian waters.
She said since September 2008, Australia had arrested 149 people for smuggling offences, with 48 convictions, and a further 99 prosecutions are underway.
“If re-elected I will legislate to toughen these measures further, increasing maximum penalties for situations where a people smuggling venture results in death,” said Gillard.
(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Sugita Katyal)