A regional processing centre for asylum seekers, based in a country that is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and run by, or at least under the auspices of, the United Nations High Commission — what a good idea.

It would remove the need for makeshift UNHCR offices throughout the region and end the perception that some applicants in some places received preferential treatment. And it would kill off the people smuggling rackets; if all asylum seekers had to go through the same gate, wherever they came from or however they arrived, there would be no advantage in risking the desperate and perilous journey by boat.

The camps in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia could not be emptied overnight, but an orderly system could be set up whereby they would be filtered through the single processing centre as opportunities for resettlement became available. Countries willing to accept successful applicants could co-operate on quotas and look ahead to make ready the necessary facilities. Altogether a win-win situation.

And where to put the centre? That’s a no-brainer. Obviously the biggest and richest country in the region, which would be the one paying most of the cost anyway: Australia. And this, of course, is where the logic breaks down. The whole point of Julia Gillard’s proposal is to keep the bastards out — offshore processing.

The official explanation is that they cannot be allowed into Australia because that would give them access to the Australian legal system, and the possibility of justice, clearly an unthinkable concept in the current climate. But the real reason is much simpler: the anxious voters of Lindsay wouldn’t like it.

And this doesn’t mean that they’re racists or rednecks; good heavens no. What it does mean is that they’re extremely ill-informed, and it would be too much trouble for sensible and decent people to persuade them otherwise. We’ll just let the real racists and rednecks encourage them to swell the ranks.

And by golly we’ll look tough while we’re doing it. The picture of Gillard and the local member, David Bradbury, dolled up in flak jackets in patrol boat in Darwin Harbour, which they had visited for that sole purposed, must surely rank as one of the silliest and most depressing of the year to date.

And to get back to the story: having rejected the largest and richest country in the region as the preferred site, where should we look next? Well, obviously to the smallest and poorest, or at least a close contender for the position. Timor Leste is a horribly cynical choice, and still would be even if the negotiations had been sensibly handled and the government and populace had shown themselves willing.

Since they are clearly not, and any future consultation will have to take the form of bullying and bribery, the whole proposal must be seen as no more than an ugly and brutal political fix, and a seriously botched one at that — a sort of stuffed-up version of whatever it takes.

It may or may not get Gillard through to the election, but it will give her, and the rest of us, an awful hangover on the morning after. Her chosen minder for the campaign, the admired and admirable Labor elder John Faulkner, must already be wondering if he made the right choice in staying on.

All tribes need their elders, and the Labor tribe does more than most.

The party depends on its history and tradition and the continuity they give its day-to-day operations. Although the ALP calls itself a progressive party, it is often reluctant to embrace change, and only does so when the new directions get the imprimatur of those seen as the real guardians of the party’s soul.

Thus the departure of three of the party’s most revered figures at the next election would be a critical event. Julia Gillard saw the problem, and was able to persuade the most esteemed of them, John Faulkner, to hang around for a bit longer, albeit as a backbencher rather than a senior minister.

But Bob McMullan, snubbed by Kevin Rudd despite being the most experienced of all of them, and Lindsay Tanner, once himself a real leadership prospect, are out of the place. Apart from Faulkner, this leaves only Simon Crean and Kim Carr as survivors of a previous Labor era; both have proved their ability and both are steeped in Labor lore, but neither commands the respect given unstintingly to Faulkner by all the factions.

It should not be forgotten that when Paul Keating lost the 1996 election, Faulkner was Gough Whitlam’s choice as his successor; Whitlam’s idea was that the party should install an interim leader until a seat in the House of Representatives could be found for the New South Wales senator. This was, of course, fantasy: apart from Kim Beazley’s obvious qualifications for the job, the party was not yet ready to give the leadership to a figure from the left. But it is a measure of Faulkner’s standing that it could even be discussed.

Whitlam himself, of course, like all Labor’s other former leaders, is a tribal elder himself, but his retirement from parliament means that he can only as a distant commentator. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Beazley and even Mark Latham frequently perform a similar task and it is a useful one, but the caucus needs resident elders of its own. Crean, Carr and Faulkner are there to fill the roles; after a decent interval Rudd, if he perseveres in parliament, will no doubt join them. That will make four people who are still serious about policy rather than just polling.

As we used to say about Anzac Day parades, the ranks are thinner but the faces are still proud. And the party marches on.

Peter Fray

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