Thanks to the High Court, Julia Gillard essentially has only two asylum-seeker policy options: reinstate a Pacific Solution 2.0 with Tony Abbott’s help or abandon offshore processing altogether.

Abbott offered his bipartisan support on re-establishing processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea — which would involve changing Australian law, since currently the High Court is suggesting that all offshore processing is illegal.

It would be seen as an about-face for Gillard and would also be difficult in a practical sense, since there are a variety of legal hurdles the government would need to jump over. David Marr explains more in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“Nauru has now joined PNG as a signatory to the refugee conventions. But that is not enough, the Solicitor-General says. They also have to have laws that ”ensure practical compliance” with their obligations and they must comply ”in practice with human-rights standards acceptable at least to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”…

… Those laws have to be seen to work in practice. PNG has an unhappy record dealing with refugees from west Papua. And how will remote little Nauru find refugees to practise on? Australia can’t send out a starter kit of asylum seekers. Where will the first batches come from?”

Alternatively, the government could choose onshore processing, a move that would please Labor MPs from the Left. Immigration minister Chris Bowen confirmed this morning that the over 330 asylum seekers who were supposed to have been processed in Malaysia and had been left in limbo will now be processed on Christmas Island.

Gillard will be meeting with her senior ministers today to discuss policy options. But expect that it will be weeks before Gillard announces the new government policy, reports Steven Scott in the Courier-Mail.

Gillard and her ministers are trapped, writes Michelle Grattan in The Age: “When cabinet ministers meet today, they will be like hostages in a heavily barred cage, shut in by legal advice on one hand and the Labor left on the other, and taunted and tempted by the opposition.”

In many ways the decision on policy is not in the hands of the politicians, says Malcolm Farr in The Punch: “And it now seems increasingly likely that the ultimate decision, and in fact government and Coalition policy, will have to be made by the High Court.”

No issue trumps asylum seeker policy for the government right now, argues Philip Coorey in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Now, there is no greater priority than sorting out asylum seeker policy. It symbolises the fight within the ALP for its own ideology.”

It’s not just a political cost adding up for the Gillard government, notes Paul Sheehan in The Sydney Morning Herald, with asylum-seeker policy projected to cost $1 billion next financial year, a tenfold increase from the last year of the Howard government. “On this single issue alone, the government would fall were an election held soon,” declares Sheehan.

Joe Hildebrand in The Daily Telegraph also agrees that the death of the Labor government is certain, contrasting Labor to Romans at the fall of the Roman Empire:

“A Roman soldier in such a position would wade into the enemy lines and take down as many of them as he could with him. A Roman politician would wander off into his bedroom with a nice glass of hemlock. In the first case you would at least accomplish something before being cut down; in the second you would at least maintain your dignity.

But this government, naturally, has chosen neither course of action.”

Among the imagery of Roman soldiers, Hildebrand calls for onshore processing: “It’s about time Labor did what it always should have done and process asylum seekers onshore.”

But neither party wants to process onshore, argues Dennis Shananan in The Australian: “The prospect of returning to the systems of more than a decade ago with bulging detention centres, years of delays and endless legal appeals is not really an option for either side.”

Meanwhile, former Liberal MP Amanda Vanstone opines in The Age that Simon Crean would make a good PM replacement:

“Age and experience are invaluable when you are in a mess. Crean has gained his over a long haul with some hard knocks on the way. He has earned a fair deal of respect. He has got a bit of Bob Hawke about him.”

Is all this current leadership speculation rubbish? As Richard Famer writes on Crikey‘s The Stump this morning:

“The first difficulty is finding someone brave or silly enough to actually take the job if offered. At the moment becoming Julia Gillard’s successor as Prime Minister would be a sure fire way of becoming the person who led Labor to the greatest defeat in its history.”

Peter Fray

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