The announcement by the Gillard government that it intends to use East Timor as a processing stop-over for asylum seekers is either a very clever political ploy or a blunder that has the potential to derail her run for a second term for her government. At its heart appears to be a qualified endorsement from a man who has no capacity to offer it – East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta.

The asylum seeker issues will no doubt be a central election issue and the Gillard government is looking to neutralize it. Using East Timor as a point of processing asylum seekers is smart because it keeps asylum seekers off-shore and hence satisfies voters who believed the ‘Pacific solution’ was a good idea.

It is also smart politics because East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, has a good if limited history on asylum seekers and continues to be viewed with sympathy by much of Australia. If asylum seekers are sent to East Timor, the chances are they will not be locked up but allowed to roam freely, and will be supported by the Australian government which will assist the Timorese economy. But there are, of course, real problems.

The first problem is that it is far from clear that the Gillard government has spoken to anyone else about this other than President Ramos-Horta. Unfortunately, despite his propensity to speak out on issues, he is a largely ceremonial president with no executive authority. His recent intervention in the Woodside Petroleum dispute over processing LNG from the Timor Sea earned him a blunt rebuff from the East Timorese government.

The view within Dili was otherwise one of surprise – no-one seems to have been forewarned, much less consulted about this proposal. Indeed, one minister was privately saying that the East Timorese government had been ‘blind-sided’. This is at best poor diplomacy.

As noted by Fretilin opposition spokesman Jose Teixeira, such a move will require a change to East Timor’s immigration act, which would at best take months, given the slowness of the legislative process there and the debates this will undoubtedly raise.

Further, prime minister Xanana Gusmao has recently been critical of Australia’s aid program and its refusal to push Woodside to establish an LNG processing plant on East Timor’s south coast. The East Timorese government equates Woodside with the Australian government, despite their obvious separation, and he has lambasted Woodside for its own announcement on a floating LNG platform. East Timor was, he said, ‘blind-sided’ on this decision as well.

Being blind-sided again, then, will not go down well in East Timor. So, if East Timor does agree, it will try to extract a hefty price from Australia, not just in terms of support for the asylum seekers, on top of its $100 million aid program, and some longer term benefit for East Timorese citizens who still largely live in dire poverty. It will also want to see the Australian government put real pressure on Woodside, which it has so far refused to do. Woodside, for its own part, is not likely to accept such pressure with much enthusiasm.

In short, the ‘East Timor solution’ does not look to have been well planned and has a high probability of falling over. However, if Gillard can hold together a process of negotiation until after an election, expected to be called sooner rather than later, then she will have neutralized the issue in the short term and have the luxury of time after an election – assuming Labor wins – to deal with the problems the proposal raises in the longer term.

PM Gillard does have strengths as a negotiator and perhaps she can pull this one off. But PM Gusmao has been in a feisty mood lately and is likely to be at best taciturn if not outright combative. A genuine ‘East Timor solution’, then, seems some way off.

East Timor is a far better option for asylum seekers than Indonesian camps or the Pacific islands, if it is done right. For a start, the asylum seekers would probably be free, if within the confines of the island. Others have even started new and productive lives there, despite its obvious difficulties.

But it is a long way from certain that East Timor’s government will agree to this proposal, which it is difficult to view as other than a stop-gap measure. And an initial outright refusal would damage the Gillard ‘brand’, perhaps fatally.

To try to ensure the ‘East Timor solution’ stays on track, it is highly likely that Australia’s Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Peter Heyward, will be fully exercising his considerable diplomatic and personal skills.

If this proposal stays alive as even just a possibility, it will be in large part due to this diplomat’s role. If it does not stay alive, Gillard and co can only look to what appears to be their own lack of planning.  But if that eventuates after the election, then perhaps they won’t care quite so much.

Professor Damien Kingsbury is in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.

Peter Fray

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