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Solution becomes a problem

Nick Bryant | 11:28 UK time, Thursday, 8 July 2010

It was all supposed to be so neat and tidy. A set-piece speech at a prestigious Sydney think-tank with a policy proposal that would take the opposition by surprise and neutralise a contentious political issue ahead of calling the forthcoming election. All followed up by a flashy photo-opportunity on board a border protection vessel that would signal her personal determination to stop the people smugglers.

Julia Gillard and her political image-makers had devoted her second week to the politics of asylum seekers. On Tuesday, she proposed what has inevitably been labelled The East Timor solution, whereby asylum seekers who set out for Australia by boat would have their claims assessed at a newly-constructed regional processing centre located somewhere in East Timor. Inevitably, it has been likened to John Howard's Pacific Solution, where asylum seekers were sent to detention centres on small Pacific islands - a policy slammed by refugee groups as uncompassionate and inhumane.

But what she hoped would be a quick political fix is turning into an almighty policy mess, for although Julia Gillard had discussed the concept with the President of East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta, she had not got the go-ahead from the government of East Timor. Nowhere near. Indeed, the country's deputy prime minister, Jose Luis Guterres, has said his country is "very unlikely" to accept the idea.

As I write, Julia Gillard is now denying that she ever specified East Timor as the site of the regional processing centre. "I'm not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location," she said, in the kind of convoluted language that eventually made people tire of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. But in her speech to Sydney's Lowy Institute, she spoke more clearly: "In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region." You can read the entire speech here to judge for yourself: and I know that some of you have already kicked off a discussion already in "Julia Gillard's Bungalow Politics".

Kevin Rudd said he would not engage in a race to the bottom over the asylum seeker issue, but that is precisely what the Greens are accusing the Gillard government of doing. Their leader, Bob Brown, has asked why the region's richest country, Australia, should rely on the region's poorest country, East Timor, to process asylum seekers. He's also claimed that Pauline Hanson-style xenophobia is "alive and well" in the asylum seeker debate. Senator Brown has also lashed out at the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, for describing asylum seekers as being part of a "peaceful invasion". "That's not dog whistling," said Senator Brown, "that's plain xenophobia."

Kevin Rudd was roundly criticised for coming up with make-shift policies on the hoof in the hope of garnering a few good headlines the following morning and a few good polls the following week. On the boat people question, the most paranoiac issue in Australian politics, is Julia Gillard doing the same?

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