After a day of arguments over amendments to the Migration Act, the Gillard government remains at a political standstill on asylum seeker processing, with onshore processing currently the only viable refugee policy.

First Julia Gillard announced the Migration Act amendments the government was prepared to make in order to get the Coalition to approve them, in order to get around the High Court’s recent decision to rule offshore processing unlawful.

These amendments included assurances that offshore processing countries could not return asylum seekers to dangerous circumstances in their home countries, but these assurances did not have to be enshrined in law. Instead, it was reliant on the immigration minister acting in the “national interest” in picking countries for offshore processing.

“How can an obligation be an obligation if it’s not legally binding?” asked opposition leader Tony Abbott.

Unsurprisingly, Abbott then rejected Gillard’s amendments, saying the Coalition would only allow an amendement which insisted that asylum seekers in Australia were only sent to countries that are signatories of the United National Refugee Convention. Meaning, it would still be impossible for refugees to be sent to Malaysia — Gillard’s policy — but that they’d be able to be sent to Nauru — — a Coalition policy.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen continued to rule out offshore processing on Nauru, instead declaring the government “would not be going down that road”.

As Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “If question time is capable of having a vibe, then this one had a distinct ‘I’d sooner eat a bowlful of my own hair than agree to your amendments’ feel to it.”

If Abbott truly believes the Malaysia policy is a bad idea, then he needs to reject any amendment that would encourage it, says Nikki Savva in The Australian:

“Abbott’s critics claim he would be a hypocrite if he voted against the amendments. In fact, he would be a hypocrite if he voted for them. Any one of the issues he has nominated is ample justification, this time at least, to just say no.”

Does that signal a win for onshore processing? Bowen says yes: “Onshore processing is the current situation — in the absence of any agreement, we do that.”

Onshore processing has long been supported by the Labor Left faction, who yesterday called for the legislation to be redrafted as it claims it breaches Labor party platform. But Labor caucus is expected to vote against the Left’s plan today.

But the government will still attempt to pass the Migration Act amendments through parliament today even though it is a “doomed” policy, as Michelle Grattan writes in The Age, since even if it manages to pass the House of Representatives there’s no way it will pass the Coalition and Greens-controlled Senate.

The latest Newspoll has a low primary vote for the Labor Party but Gillard’s own popularity ratings are up, reflecting that Australians appreciate when their political leaders attempt to compromise on an issue. Not that a compromising is everything. “Gillard’s winning a negotiating war, but the fundamentals have not changed,” writes Dennis Shanahan in The Australian.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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