The Gillard government appeared willing to negotiate its Malaysia Solution even before the latest boat tragedy but the Opposition refuses to compromise on its asylum seeker policy, according to private letters released yesterday.

The letters, released by immigration minister Chris Bowen, reveal correspondence between Prime Minister Julia Gillard — and acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan — and Opposition leader Tony Abbott regarding the need to introduce offshore processing of asylum seekers due to an increase in bad weather and boats attempting the treacherous journey.

In a letter dated December 14 Gillard wrote to Abbott asking for the immigration and shadow immigration minister to meet to try and come to a “mutually satisfactory outcome”, noting that she was willing to recall parliament to pass the legislation if it received Opposition support. The most expected outcome is that offshore processing would occur on Malaysia and Nauru (and perhaps even Manus Island).

Abbott’s reply on December 16 declares that “this is a problem you have created and that it is your responsibility to solve” and that “in absence of any indication that you are willing to change your position, I don’t see much point in further private discussions between Mr Morrison and Mr Bowen.” Instead Abbott requested that the government make any specific proposal in writing.

A further two replies from Abbott — from December 19 and 20 — reiterate that the Opposition are not willing to allow Morrison and Bowen to meet and negotiate, but instead request all policy options in writing.

Former Howard government immigration minister, Phillip Ruddock — the architect of the Pacific Solution — said that a compromise could include Malaysia if rules were tightened. “In my view the Government should seek to formalise its informal arrangements with Malaysia that people who are found to be refugees should not be returned to places of persecution … that might be a way they could reach a compromise without Malaysia being a signatory.”

Another former Howard minister, Alexander Downer, encouraged the government and opposition to negotiate, saying: “The public want the government to do something about this, when you see those people drowning — it’s heart-wrenching stuff.”

The lives of asylum seekers are turning into a political game once more. Hurry up and start negotiating because this has gotten dangerous, says Lenore Taylor in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“It’s pathetic. The asylum policies of the Labor and Liberal parties are not that far apart. But the politics is so putrid they can’t even sit in the same room. And in the meantime the boats keep coming, with the ever-present potential for another catastrophe.

Neither leader wants to be the first to compromise — which is understandable — but we should applaud whoever does, declares Dennis Shanahan in The Australian:

“Neither has been prepared to put policy ahead of politics and neither is prepared to face the political damage of retreat. Both should give ground and the first to do so should be given due credit.”

Let’s not forget the Greens in this, writes Matt Johnston in the Herald Sun:

“As the government and Opposition trade blows, the Greens must face more scrutiny over this. They control the Senate and Bob Brown could allow the PM to enact her policy. The Greens want a humanitarian focus on asylum seekers, but surely this can’t include letting people risk their lives at sea.”

There is no simple solution to stopping the boats, argues Dilan Thampapillai at The Drum:

“… a lot of our political rhetoric and policy action centers on stopping boats. As a proposed solution to a serious problem it is an exercise in denial.

The boats will still keep coming because (i) people are fleeing tyrants and their henchmen who are committing crimes with impunity and (ii) some people are fleeing the broken refugee system. It is the last part that is troubling.”

Peter Fray

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