Julia Gillard had to respond to the defeat of the Oakeshott bill by the Coalition and the Greens last night. The political response, the “declare compromise and go home” response, would have been to accept defeat on Malaysia, commit to reopening Nauru and increasing our humanitarian intake, and say she didn’t believe it would work but would give it a go. This would have had the interesting effect of taking up Malcolm Turnbull’s intriguing semi-offer on Wednesday, when he (rather than, peculiarly, Tony Abbott) said the Prime Minister would have grounds to return to Parliament and argue for Malaysia if she tried Nauru first.

That would have addressed the politics of the issue, but wouldn’t have done anything to deter people from getting in boats. Six months or a year on Nauru before being settled in Australia is hardly a deterrent for families facing five or 10 years in a refugee camp watching their kids grow up with no opportunities. Instead, Gillard has stuck with her goal of trying to put in place a policy that might actually work.

Her Angus Houston-led advisory committee in effect steals Christine Milne’s proposal for a multi-party committee on the issue, except this one will be led by independent advisers rather than their merely having input into it. The goal is the same — create a different dynamic that allows politicians to shift position without losing face.

Whether that includes the Prime Minister herself remains to be seen. Clearly she expects Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange to endorse the Malaysian option. Gillard last night declined to commit to running with another proposal if they endorse something else — though it’s unlikely to be Nauru. But it would give her wriggle room to shift position.

There have been a few critical headlines about the committee — such as that the Prime Minister is “outsourcing” the problem. After the performance of Parliament this week, outsourcing’s a better idea than most; our political leaders having failed to secure a resolution even in the face of graphic evidence of the problem. For an institution that has suffered a dramatic drop in public trust in recent months, this week’s performance is unlikely to salvage its reputation in the eyes of voters.

The composition of the committee will make Abbott’s instinct to reject it more difficult. Houston was the Howard government’s chief of the Air Force and chief of the Defence Force. L’Estrange is a former senior policy functionary for the Liberals, and a long-time friend of John Howard, who appointed him cabinet secretary and later DFAT secretary. The opposition is also keen to get the focus off asylum seekers and onto the carbon price.

Today’s Coalition talking points — yet again obtained by Crikey — show the eagerness of the Coalition to get back to talking about the carbon price, complete with a highly detailed set of commitments about what Abbott will do about it. Asylum seekers are not playing quite as well for the opposition at the moment as they used to.

As for the Greens, they’ve left themselves open to hearing what the committee comes up with but have in effect ruled out a significant shift on the core issue of adhering to the UN Refugee Convention.

Don’t expect a resolution any time soon.

Peter Fray

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