Prime Minister Gillard blew the boat people issue wide open yesterday with a stirring speech that took a swipe at players from all sides of the debate. In an masterful attempt to position herself firmly in the centre, and to further cement her style as a mediator and a listener, Gillard attacked both the Left for their use of the racism label and refuted the Opposition’s claim to “turn the boats back”:

How appalling it is that this is where the long-running debate on asylum seekers has taken us — to an unedifying exchange of incendiary labels like ‘red neck’ and hollow slogans like ‘turn the boats around’, with nobody asking how we can move the nation forward.

Her new policy focuses on working with East Timor, the United Nations High Commission of Refugees and New Zealand in processing refugees offshore. A new regional processing centre would be established in East Timor. Gillard also lifted the ban on processing Sri Lankan asylum seeker claims based on a recent UNCHR report.

Bernard Keane wrote in yesterday’s Daily Mail about the costly new East Timor fix:

Taxpayers will be wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on several thousand asylum seekers, to assuage the xenophobic instincts of a few swinging voters in marginal electorates. Unedifying indeed.

Crikey’s editorial yesterday, titled “Great speech, shame about the policy”, said:

Because the policy, just like the tired language that you rightly rejected, is based on false assertions.

Is Gillard’s East Timor plan good policy? Is it just another version of the Pacific Solution? Is it even worse? Or will it work?

Here’s what the pundits are saying:

The Australian

Sian Powell: A big gamble between status and strife

East Timor is fighting hard to mature as a democracy and take its place as a partner in various regional and Asian forums. A processing centre would bring some status. Yet it could also inflame all sorts of tensions.

Paul Maley: Ham-fisted handling may wreck good policy

Julia Gillard has learned early what all prime ministers confronted with the problem of irregular migration eventually learn.

That the issue should be managed as far away from Australia as possible.

Janet Albrechtsen: Tough talk Julia, now walk the walk

If Julia Gillard’s gait starts to look a little awkward over the coming weeks, put it down to her feeling the discomfort of the classic Labor wedgie.

Greg Sheridan: Gillard shows Howard and Abbott were right

Now, would all those people who condemned Howard for the Pacific Solution please apologise?

Tom Dusevic: The voice of reason pitches to fair folk

Neither a high-voltage Aussie Obama nor a Kev-heavy toxic bore, she is aiming to be the appealing, sweet voice of reason before an imminent election.

The Age

Michelle Grattan: It is not a good time to seek asylum

The dog whistle is sounding like a wolf howl.

Julia Gillard is devilishly clever. Her asylum seeker policy is a masterstroke of improvisation.

Michael Gordon: Messages for both sides of debate

It is an idea with merit.

Tony Wright: Gillard changes her tune, in a postmodern sort of way

Julia Gillard must feel such a dunce. All those years standing strong on the policy that Labor would turn the boats back … and it was all nonsense.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Lenore Taylor: Tough on boat people

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have an identical aim: to get their name and the words ”tough” and ”boat people” into the same sentence.

Phillip Coorey: Labor’s Indian Ocean solution

But the fate of her policy rests with two foreign governments and the United Nations, all of which gave no firm commitment yesterday.

Herald Sun

Editorial: Timor solution

The line in the sand has been drawn and it is up to voters to decide which policy is in Australia’s best interest.

Phillip Hudson: Gillard walking the razor wire on refugees debate

The PM is trying to walk both sides of a razor-wire fence as she denounces the “extreme, emotionally charged claims” from both sides.

Andrew Bolt: Deception on the high seas

Just hearing our charming first female Prime Minister insist her Pacific Solution was not a Pacific Solution was all it took to have some commentators doubt their own judgment, and praise as “balanced” a plan they’d damned in Howard as inhumane. What a country.

ABC

Barrie Cassidy: Gillard, asylum seekers and more appealing rhetoric

I suspect the western suburbs of Sydney will be more persuaded than the inner suburbs of Melbourne, but then they were always the bigger concern to a Labor Government looking to be re-elected.

Greg Barns: A sad day for Australian democracy

It comes as no surprise to this writer that newly minted Prime Minister Julia Gillard would quickly succumb to the politics of the low road on asylum seekers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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