There was a lot of predictability in the responses to yesterday’s Gillard speech and policy proposals on asylum seekers, at least as far as the broader commentariat were concerned — the Labor leaners loved it, the Green left saw dog-whistles, while the wingnuts created yet another acute shortage of tin foil in supermarkets around the nation.

The non-policy aspects of the PM’s speech are to be commended — it was a far more pleasant kind of politics than the grubby stroking of the dark underbelly of the electorate that Howard pursued in 2001 and that some of us were half expecting to re-emerge yesterday. For the first time in a long time we had a Prime Minister who spoke about the reality of the numbers when it comes to asylum seekers arriving by boat, a political leader who treated the public like adults and sought to remove some of the heat from the issue — although not quite managing to fully substitute that heat with equal parts light.

The person who really nailed it was Matt Franklin in The Australian:

Critics can easily argue that her lack of detail exposes the policy as little more than a political fix — a thought bubble not backed by policy development.

It is clear that Gillard’s proposals are based on her own views about the best way forward on border protection.

It is equally clear that her policy-development process has gone no further than telephoning the leaders of Timor, New Zealand and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, to see whether they agreed.

She cannot say how much it will cost, exactly where she will build her Timorese refugee processing centre, who will run it or whether any other nations will be involved. Given she has been Prime Minister less than a fortnight, that’s understandable at the practical level. But if her idea is to fly in a political sense, she must put flesh on the bones — quickly.

What we actually have is a blank page with a policy headline and it’s why refugee advocates including the Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International and even Julian Burnside, have given the policy direction somewhere between a qualified and very qualified tick.

One of the most important long-standing goals of most refugee organisations in Australia — and something that often appears to fly right over the head of many on the politically activist left in this debate — is for the creation of a well resourced, properly administered regional refugee processing centre that has UNHCR participation, regional government co-operation, a fair, efficient and and consistent refugee status determination process, clearly defined legal rights for appeal and, most importantly, a well functioning resettlement program.

It is why the Pacific Solution was canned by refugee organisations — for the Pacific Solution was exactly none of these things. It’s also why comparisons between the Pacific Solution and some possible East Timor solution are pretty superficial and lazy.

Such a regional processing centre, if done right, would carry with it several not insubstantial benefits. First — and most obviously — it would reduce the number of people who drown on the voyage to Australia by removing the need for the open-water trip towards the Australian mainland or one of our northern islands.

At a domestic level, it stops grubby politics hiding under the petticoat of the queue-jumping argument, as we’ll actually create some kind of queue.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey