Labor all at sea on eve of asylum seeker report
The biggest single boatload of asylum seekers since Labor came to power has intensified the pressure on Julia Gillard to fix the border protection mess heading into a crucial parliamentary fortnight.
The timing is excruciating for Labor MPs returning to the capital as Ms Gillard’s eminent person’s panel headed by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, prepares to report on Monday.
Derided as problem out-sourcing, the former top soldier’s mission was always close to impossible: fixing what the Government and the parliament was incapable of fixing when it ended two days of acrimonious debate in a stalemate last June.
Government sources acknowledge that despite its eminence, the panel was as boxed-in as everyone else and that it had been consulting the very same specialists as the Government had when formulating the Malaysian “people-swap’’ deal. Expectations of a silver bullet are therefore non-existent.
The latest vessel carrying some 211 persons issued a plea for help on Wednesday but it took a further two days and two Australian ships to affect a difficult rescue operation.
More irregular-entry boats carrying more people have arrived in Australia in 2012 than in any full year and it is not yet September.
The Opposition, which argues among other things that boats should be towed back to the Indonesian territorial line, says 7,500 people have arrived in 2012 alone as part of some 22,000 people aboard 379 boats since the 2007 “Rudd-slide’’ election.
A source close to the Houston panel said it was likely it would advise that the Coalition’s favoured policy of tow-backs at sea would not only be impractical from a maritime safety and foreign policy perspective, but would constitute a breach of legal obligations.
The latest contingent of asylum seekers also coincided with disturbing news of fatigue cracks appearing in several Armidale-class Navy patrol boats used to police Australia’s northern borders.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday conceded that an increased “operational tempo’’ had played a part.
Questioned on whether the arrival of the 211 people demonstrated the failure of Government policy, Mr Bowen went strangely close to conceding the case for an early election by declaring that it was the Parliament itself that had failed.
“Well, what we have here is a failure to implement a policy which all the experts say will clearly work, which is the implementation of the Malaysia agreement,’’ he told AM.
“That is a failure of the Parliament to allow the Government to get on and implement its policy.’‘
Politically and practically, Labor is now slave to the gruesome overlap of reality and rhetoric with Navy assets literally starting to crack just as the broader system is seen to fatally fracture.
Ever the opportunist, the Opposition spokesman Scott Morrison re-worked Tony Abbott’s glib “stop the boats’’ slogan with the wry observation that by stretching our Navy to breaking point, the people-smugglers are now stopping our boats.
But really, who’s laughing?
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