Why Gillard's 'East Timor solution' cannot workby Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
, July 24, 2010
The plan announced by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to create a regional off-shore refugee processing facility in East Timor is a re-run of Kevin Rudd's practice of making policy on the run, and will not solve the problem of boatloads of asylum-seekers coming to Australia.
The Gillard plan will not work for a number of reasons.
Even if East Timor were to agree to this fait accompli
- which its Parliament has rejected overwhelmingly - it would take many months, even years, to establish a suitable detention facility in East Timor. Meanwhile, the boats would continue to come.
East Timor has itself faced acute problems of refugees since the Indonesians were forced out 11 years ago. Over 100,000 East Timorese were made refugees in West Timor in 1999, and have had to be repatriated. And following violence in 2006, over 100,000 people were forced from their homes, and lived as internally displaced persons for months, and in some cases, years.
East Timor has neither the infrastructure, nor the skilled workforce, nor the will to run a detention centre for its wealthy neighbours.
It also doesn't need the money, as it has over $4 billion in its national infrastructure fund, coming from oil and gas royalties from the Timor Sea.
It seems that the only East Timorese person to whom the Prime Minister spoke was the President of East Timor, José Ramos Horta, who happened to be in Australia for the opening of the new Timorese embassy at the time.
Julia Gillard apparently does not understand that the President of East Timor is a largely ceremonial position, similar to Australia's Governor-General. It is the equivalent of the US President announcing the establishment of a detention centre in Australia, after having had a discussion with Australia's Governor-General, Quentin Bryce!
The Prime Minister's new policy was announced in a speech to the Lowy Institute in Sydney on July 6, when she said: "Today I announce that we will begin a new initiative. In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing-centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region.
"The purpose would be to ensure that people-smugglers have no product to sell. A boat ride to Australia would just be a ticket back to the regional processing-centre …
"President Ramos Horta told me that he welcomed the conversation about this possibility, and I look forward to further consultation and dialogue on developing this initiative into a proposal that would advance the proper and consistent treatment of people arriving without authorisation in our region.
"I have also spoken to New Zealand's Prime Minister about this possibility, and John [Keys] said to me that he would be open to considering this initiative constructively.
"East Timor and New Zealand are vital countries in this initiative, as they are already signatories to the Refugee Convention, and New Zealand, like Australia, is a key resettlement country."
The key people who will make the decision in East Timor are the members of the Timorese Parliament, and no decision on an issue such as this could be made without their support. The governing coalition is stable, but the party of the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, has only about 28 per cent of parliamentarians, and even their support cannot be assured.
In general, Timorese MPs will not accept being railroaded by their powerful neighbours, and will not approve a plan which they first heard about on the radio or TV.
Construction of a suitable facility could only be commenced after a lengthy legislative process had been completed in East Timor, pushing the operational date of the plan well into the future.
There are other issues. While the people of East Timor are grateful to Australia for its intervention in support of East Timor's independence in 1999 and 2006, there are serious unresolved issues in the bilateral relationship which the Rudd and Gillard Governments have not addressed.
These include the seabed boundary between the two countries and the refusal of the Australian-owned gas and petroleum producer, Woodside, to construct a gas processing plant in East Timor.
In all the circumstances, the idea of an East Timor detention facility is "a moonbeam from the larger lunacy", to borrow a phrase coined by Canadian economist and humorist Stephen Leacock in 1915.
If the Government were serious about dealing with the problem, it would make it clear that Australia would continue to accept its quota of refugees, but would give first priority to those who have applied to Australian embassies and consulates in countries adjoining their original homeland.
Further, Australia should consider the status of boat-people only if Australia was their first port-of-call after leaving their homeland.
Currently, the Afghan and Pakistan asylum-seekers coming on boats into Australia are flouting our refugee processing rules because they have thousands of dollars to buy airline tickets to Indonesia, then buy seats on boats organised by people-smugglers to sail to Australia. These people should be sent back home.