As the new consolation prize, Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd’s first job will be to try to implement the government’s “East Timor solution” for asylum seekers. The issue is whether this policy has any chance of success.

The first hurdle to be overcome was the unanimous vote by East Timor’s parliament, if with an incomplete sitting of members, opposing the idea. As a wealthy developed country, many East Timorese ask, why does Australia want to off-load its problems onto its impoverished neighbour? Why does Australia not properly shoulder its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention?

The backdrop to this opposition is that East Timor’s political climate is now delicately poised. The government of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is a coalition of parties, most of whom object to the asylum-seeker processing centre proposal. Only last week, an exchange of gratuitous insults between Gusmao and his deputy PM Mario Carrascalao from the Social Democratic Party (PSD) saw the latter resign his post.

This followed an earlier spat between Gusmao and Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa, head of the PSD, in which the latter threatened to resign.

Carrascalao has said that his resignation does not mean that PSD will immediately withdraw from the governing alliance, leaving it without a majority on the floor of the parliament. But it does mean the government is in serious trouble. The last thing that Gusmao now needs is to try to push through an unpopular agreement with Australia, which is already widely seen as having bullied East Timor over the Timor Sea Treaty.

The opposition Fretilin Party has said it is prepared to wait until next year for an election — a year earlier than the full parliamentary term. But it has said clearly that it is not interested in accepting Australia’s asylum seekers, with any possible negotiation likely to spill over into a new government and become an unpopular election issue along the way.

There is also the issue that the East Timorese people know too well what it is like to live under oppression and to seek to flee from it. Their view is one of sympathy to asylum seekers, not some over-inflated objection over “border security”. And, if there is a way forward on the asylum seeker issue, this might be it.

East Timor might agree to accept asylum seekers if this is part of a larger and more humane approach to the issue, including bringing East Timor into an international forum as an equal partner. Asylum seekers would also need to be housed in an Australian-built facility on the country’s under-developed south coast, its employees paid Australian wages and the whole facility to be overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in co-operation with the International Organisation for Migration and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Asylum seekers would not be locked up, but could have a degree of freedom. Timelines for processing will be short and tight under any agreement and Australia will be obliged to immediately take those asylum seekers acknowledged as legitimate. In this way, East Timor hopes to show Australia, and the world, a more humane approach to caring for people fleeing persecution.

It won’t be easy, though, given existing antipathy towards Australia on the issue and Gusmao’s need to placate a fractious domestic political environment. If a deal is to be done, it will require time, patience, large doses of diplomacy and a lot of money. The East Timorese will need to believe they are doing a good thing, as well as be very generously compensated for it.

Kevin Rudd will know there won’t be any quick or easy “East Timor solution”, and there may not be one at all. The second string to Rudd’s asylum-seeker bow will, then, be to work more vigorously on regional co-operation and to look for more lateral answers to the asylum-seeker issue.

The “East Timor solution” will be pursued by Rudd, but it won’t be his only option. A multifaceted approach to asylum seekers is much more likely than a single-track off-shore processing plan.

Indeed, the whole emphasis on asylum seekers will probably shift to the broader approach, to minimise the loss if the “East Timor solution” doesn’t work, but more importantly because that is what should have been done from the start.

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

Peter Fray

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