When earlier this week I compared Julia Gillard’s asylum seeker speech to John Howard, I didn’t realise she’d take the comparison to heart and adopt all of the former Prime Minister’s rhetorical habits. But there she was yesterday, deploying that old Howard stand-by of a casuistic explanation of her own words. She hadn’t meant East Timor at all when she talked about the location of a regional processing centre, it turns out, despite saying she’d spoken to José Ramos-Horta.

Oh — José Ramos-Horta. Sorry, we were getting confused. Perhaps in the manner of The Late Show in the 1990s, the Prime Minister wanted to ring Mexican musician Joe Ramos and ask his views on the plight of desperate immigrants, and her bumbling assistant got the president of East Timor by mistake.

We may not have had much idea what Kevin Rudd was saying half the time, but he rarely deployed the sort of careful parsing of his own words that both his predecessor and, now, his replacement, employed.

Then again, the whole Gillard policy looked undercooked right from the outset.  A “regional solution” for which the preparatory work consisted of a quick call to East Timor and another to the UNHCR and the NZ Prime Minister, coupled with an announcement that, based on a UNHCR report the night before, Tamils no longer had much show of being accepted as refugees.

As Laura Tingle pointed out about the mining tax cave-in last week, for a Government supposedly rectifying the one-man band tendencies of its ousted leader, there’s not much sign of a return to due and considered process.

This is a Government in a terrible hurry to get to an election while its new leader’s glow lasts with the voters. Policy is being driven not by polling but by the one poll that matters. The imperative is not good policy or consultation but ticking the box on key issues before the trip to Yarralumla, probably next Sunday morning. Actual consequences can be managed post-election.

While Gillard was happy to invest quite some time in negotiating with the executives of the big three foreign mining companies, she gave little more than a heads-up to actual foreign leaders for a major policy initiative involving them — which Gillard insists the regional processing centre is, rather than a quick political fix. Regional leaders must be puzzled and slightly worried about their new counterpart. If she’d actually invested some time in exploring the issue with other leaders before announcing it, voters would be entitled to give her the benefit of the doubt about being genuinely committed to a regional solution to asylum seekers in boats.

As it stands, it just looks half-arsed policy from a woman in a rush to get another term.

Next week, it’ll be the third self-selected policy box, climate change, for ticking. Again, policy driven by the imminent poll, by the need to appear to have a policy. Here’s an idea — maybe she can call BHP, Rio and Xstrata back in and thrash out another deal with them. At least that looked like an actual process of consultation.

Peter Fray

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