Gillard cannot expect asylum from wrath of political gods
Julia Gillard must wonder what she has done to offend the political Gods.
How else could she explain that with unearthly regularity, every new policy she employs is followed by an event seemingly contrived to destroy it.
Even when, as in the case of this week’s backflip on asylum seekers, had she chosen the alternative, to do nothing, it would arguably have been worse.
But nothing has done more to undermine the Prime Minister’s authority on an issue so rapidly, than yesterday’s high-sea farce off the coast of Java which cost yet another life.
A group of 67 asylum seekers not only ignored the new warning to not come here by boat, they allegedly seized a merchant ship – which by way of co-incidence belongs to the same company as the Tampa - with threats of violence if it didn’t deviate from its course to Singapore, turn around and take them to Christmas Island.
By back-flipping on Nauru, the PM has led many of her caucus members to the edge of what for them is a moral abyss.
Many of them may well be starting to feel the full weight of what they have just done in supporting it. Particularly if it doesnt work. And the first signs aren’t encouraging.
Kevin Rudd will no doubt be available to remind his colleagues that on the day of his didactic departure he warned of the hazards for Labor in lurching to the Right on asylum seekers.
Gillard true to her word of fixing the problems she claimed Rudd couldn’t, hasn’t just lurched to the Right, in the minds of some of her colleageus she has leapt over it into uncharted political territory for Labor.
And remarkably she has taken the Left of the party, with all is contortions, along with her.
But this is where the real dangers lie for the PM in embracing the hitherto unthinkable for a Labor government.
As much as she might argue the semantics, the PM has not only given effect to restoring John Howard’s Pacific Solution, she has gone further with the addition of a no-advantage test for boat arrivals.
This is a policy that Labor would never have adopted, ever, without the protection of Angus Houston’s report.
This has given the appearance of a level of political cover for Gillard and obscurity over who will end up owning it if it fails, even if it means she is vulnerable to the claim that she lacks conviction.
But the PM’s potential troubles are not confined to how this goes down with punters, which is linked to but not limited to, the future flow of boats.
The Left warned a year ago, when Chris Bowen first started pushing Nauru as a solution to the deadlock over Malaysia, that this issue more than any other would tear at the heart of the Labor Party.
When it starts to sink in with the Left, and progressive MPs in the Right, that they have helped deliver a policy that they have railed against for the past decade as being a symbol of the Howard Government’s lack of humanity, cracks will widen further in the Labor caucus.
They will no doubt be reminded of their ideological betrayal when they return to their branches and have resolutions passed condemning them by their own members.
Rudd arguably created this mess the Government now finds itself in, by dismantling offshore processing in the first place.
But what Rudd also failed to do was explain properly to people that he was coming from a position of compassion over the atrocities of the Sri Lankan civil war.
Since then Gillard has been trying to play both sides of the debate, playing to Right over their concerns for border protection, while appeasing the Left with the promise of never going back to Nauru - a trade off to get their support for the Malaysia people swap deal.
As one MP said, in returning to the Pacific Solution, Gillard too has completely missed the compassion cue, which in this case is the Christmas Island tragedy.
Those in the caucus who are also uncomfortable about this policy, will console themselves with the prospect that they may have a better chance of keeping their seats by moving the Government back into the middle ground on an issue which for Labor has historically been electoral quicksand.
But this will be contingent on the execution of the policy and the reopening of the facilities – and more importantly whether it works not just to slow the boats but to stop them.
The PM tried to make a virtue of resisting claims to a political victory this week. That’s because she must know that it wasn’t one.
Whatever Labor does, it will never realise an electoral bounce in this space. The best Gillard can hope for is to neutralise the issue as negative.
Several MPs have used the unpleasant metaphor of the shit sandwich to explain their change of heart this week.
As they say, the proof of the pudding, or in this case the sandwich, will be in how it goes down.
Simon Benson is the National Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph.
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