Julia Gillard’s pledge to cloak the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ in a new East Timor regional fix could spell trouble for Labor in the race for the federal seat of Melbourne.

The inner-urban electorate vacated by Melbourne University’s favourite son Lindsay Tanner might be expected to edge closer into the clutches of the Greens, who are within striking distance with a margin of 4.7%, despite the nuanced elements of the speech delivered by the Prime Minister at the Lowy Institute this morning.

Gillard was careful to throw the progressive set a consultative bone early in the address, but the more measured tone, which has been missing from the mainstream debate thus far, isn’t likely to be picked up amid the hardline soundbites that will bounce around the electronic media.

The raw statistics, which show that Australia takes 0.6% of the world’s asylum seekers, are likely to play well, as will the PM’s pledge to “make our decisions on the principles that unite us”, to “accept people in legitimate need”, alongside an appeal to “Australians’ basic decency”, which sounded like a reverse dog whistle for the denizens of Melbourne (and Sydney and Grayndler) whose revulsion about the debate being played out nine years after Tampa is legion.

But the popularist elements are unlikely to sit well with Tanner’s mooted replacement, former trade union official Cath Bowtell.

Bowtell, who received official party endorsement yesterday, was grilled by Jon Faine on the question of boat people on ABC Radio this morning.

“On the issue of asylum seekers I think that people in the inner city understand that this is a very complex issue, they understand that the prime minister is right when she says that we have to have the debate on facts not on name calling,” she said.

“What they understand is that we have to bring people with us. But they also understand that people seeking asylum are people who are  fleeing their homelands because they fear that they are at risk personally or that their children’s lives are at risk and the people in Melbourne who I talk to understand that.”

The statement was met with a retort by Faine. “They’ll punish you for dog whistle politics!”

In her first tough interview, the WorkSafe executive director appeared on more stable ground over bread and butter issues of superannuation reform, paid maternity leave and working class struggles: “Labor has a very good record of progressive reform. You have to build the case with people and you have bring people with you.”

After the promising start, this morning’s Lowy announcement was pockmarked by tough language from Gillard like “the rules are the rules” as the PM implored successful asylum seekers to “learn English, get a job and send their kids to school”.

Greens candidate Adam Bandt, who is promising to “stand up for refugees” in a fresh banner slapped on the party’s prominent Brunswick Street office, rejected the revised policy when contacted by Crikey.

“It’s a similar approach to the Howard era but a different place, a lurch away from a fair and compassionate Australia. Labor seems to think the only marginal seats that matter are those where they’re in contest with the Coalition, but now voters in the inner city seats like Melbourne have a chance to send a message.”

But Bandt said the Greens had not been deliberately playing up the refugee issue for political gain, despite using it as central plank of his campaign.

“Nothing would make me happier that if that wasn’t an election issue,” he said. “It’s really distressing to find ourselves having Howard-era debates. The best thing for the country and for refugees was if we could have a cross-partisan approach anchored in international law.

“It’s the major parties that are choosing to turn this into an election issue.”

Bandt warned a more rigorous approach in processing Afghan asylum seekers would be coupled with a toughening of the criteria, and the offshore solution would add to the cruelty.

Peter Fray

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