Prime Minister Julia Gillard convinced her Labor caucus to back changes to the Migration Act in order to legalise the Malaysia refugee swap, but will Tony Abbott support them?

The Coalition has long promised to re-open processing of asylum seekers in Nauru if it won government. But the recent High Court decision questioned the legality of any offshore processing, including Nauru and Malaysia.

Gillard’s argument is that changes to the migration legislation will help any future government, not just her own. “I am not asking Tony Abbott to give me any more power as Prime Minister than he would seek for himself if he were ever prime minister,” said Gillard.

So far Abbott isn’t giving too much away, only saying that he wouldn’t make a decision until he saw the legislation. Although he — unsurprisingly — remains vocal against Gillard’s Malaysia plan: “Only the combination of Nauru, the re-introduction of temporary protection visas and a willingness to turn boats around, where it is safe to do so, will stop the boats.”

But which way will he vote? Will he support Gillard’s legislation or demand further amendments? Let the speculation begin.

“… the future of Australia’s border protection rests with Tony Abbott,” write Simon Benson and Alison Rehn in The Daily Telegraph. It’s not just Abbott feeling the pressure, “Julia Gillard’s hopes of reviving the Malaysia plan are hanging by a thread ..,” reports Phillip Coorey in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Abbott — and the Coalition’s — worst nightmare would be Labor dumping Gillard and the carbon tax, writes Niki Savva in The Australian: “Abbott’s second-worst nightmare has to be Gillard striking a workable, humane policy on asylum seekers, which stops the boats, secures the support of Left and Right, and does it without his help. In all our dreams, most likely.”

Gillard is trying to shy away from the spotlight and shine it on Abbott now, says Phillip Hudson in the Herald Sun:

“After a rough first year, Gillard needs a victory on this issue and is framing it as a test for Abbott, saying he can’t just be the leader of a protest party. She wants him to give in to her in their battle of wills.

In a press conference yesterday the PM mentioned Abbott 24 times and people smugglers just five.”

Abbott needs to back the changes, because it’s critical that our government has these powers, declares The Australian‘s editorial:

“Labor is wrong to rule out Nauru, just as Mr Abbott should not rule out Malaysia. For the moment, however, the more pressing issue for politicians is not the specific location of any centres, but ensuring the executive government — whatever its political stripe — alone decides Australia’s policy on managing asylum seekers.”

“How did the Liberals get into this mess?” asks Paul Kelly in The Australian, where he argues that Abbott needs to rethink his move to block the Malaysia option simply so Gillard doesn’t get a win. “Contrary to popular opinion, this is not smart politics. Abbott is now attacking Gillard from the Left. This will hopelessly compromise his boat-people message,” writes Kelly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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