The Gillard administration did the seemingly unthinkable yesterday: they outlined — gasp! — a slightly different policy direction on refugee and asylum seekers processing.

The government announced plans to build two more detention centres to be constructed near Perth and Adelaide. The Age’s Michelle Grattan soberly described plans for the new facilities as “an admission that the number of asylum seekers coming is not going to lessen any time soon.”

The Daily Telegraph echoed Grattan’s views and used the opportunity to chastise the government:

“It’s difficult to shake the feeling that when it comes to asylum seekers, this government is just making it up as it goes along. They don’t have answers, and it’s beginning to look like they don’t understand the questions.”

Predictably, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott used the occasion to blast the government for not stopping the boats.

Yesterday’s announcement, however, was two-pronged, and the second component received a great deal more positive press.

Gillard announced that children currently in detention will be moved into community accommodation run by churches and charity. The move will be gradual and, according to The Australian, will impact the lives of up to 738 children.

Gillard’s message was a riff on that old “won’t somebody think about the children” chestnut, simple when you get down to it: that young’uns ought not to live in crummy detention centre conditions. Or as the PM put it: “”I don’t think it’s the Australian way to have kids behind the razor wire.”

The move was widely hailed as a step in the right direction. Today’s Herald Sun editorial included an endorsement that Gillard was “absolutely right” and “700 children are destined to find a quality of life that has long eluded them” but also expressed some concerns:

Changes on such a huge scale are not easy to put into effect, and the children will have to wait until June for their freedom. To most advocacy groups, Ms Gillard’s decision is a huge step forward, although at least one says that things are not moving quickly enough.

Michelle Grattan said “the undertaking to move children and vulnerable families into community-based accommodation is welcome.” The Australian’s Lanai Vasek wrote “vulnerable families and minors will benefit from the changes” and Lateline’s Hayden Cooper said “families and children will be the biggest winners from the new deal.”

These decisions, of course, were not floated during the election campaign but were arguably were influenced by its outcome. Says Cooper:

The Prime Minister’s shift on children in detention is undoubtedly a nod to the left, a softening of policy so long demanded by refugee advocates. It delivers a breakthrough to the Greens, who’ve used their alliance with Labor to lobby for the change.

The Daily Telegraph upped the ante:

The new detention centres represent yet another departure from Julia Gillard’s election campaign announcements. We were told nothing during the campaign about the need for new centres. Mere months later, however, and suddenly they are a vital issue.

With a subject as vexed and potent as this one, expect to hear more heated debate from both sides. Gillard and her ministry, caught between Left and Right, might find a new appreciation for Stealers Wheel.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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