Migration Backdown As Boats Arrive

Saffron Howden and Nick Butterly, Australian News, August 14, 2006

Prime Minister John Howard has been forced to abandon his tough immigration laws rather than face an embarrassing defeat of the policy in the Senate.

Just hours after the Government backdown, it emerged that eight new boat people had arrived on Australian shores.

Mr Howard today decided to dump the legislation rather than see it defeated in parliament, after Liberal Judith Troeth vowed to cross the floor of the Senate to oppose it.

The backdown came as Mr Howard faced the biggest internal revolt of his 10 years in office.

“I don’t feel humiliated—I’m disappointed,” Mr Howard told ABC television tonight.

Earlier, Mr Howard accepted he did not have the numbers to pass the Bill through the Senate.

“The whole Bill is out,” he said.

After weeks of tension in government ranks, dissenting coalition MPs were quietly celebrating the death of the laws that would have sent all boat people to detention camps on Nauru for processing.

Mr Howard made the decision following a one-to-one discussion with Senator Troeth.

“I am a realist as well as a democrat,” he said. “I saw no point, nor did the joint party meeting see any point, in prolonging the debate.”

Senator Troeth’s celebration was low key.

“The matter has been resolved and I’m satisfied with the outcome,” she said to AAP.

Three lower house colleagues who last week crossed the floor over the Bill in an unprecedented show of defiance—Judi Moylan, Russell Broadbent and Petro Georgiou—remained silent in victory.

Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce, who wanted to change the laws to allow Parliament to override a minister’s decision, did not want to gloat either.

He had decided to abstain from the final vote scheduled to take place in the Senate this week.

Mr Howard stressed there was nothing to be gained from punishing the dissident backbenchers for their views.

“I see no merit and I will not be seeking within the ranks of the Liberal Party organisation the exaction of any kind of vengeance,” he said.

But just hours after the laws were withdrawn, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone revealed eight more people had arrived on Australian shores illegally.

Their gender, nationality and age were unclear, but Senator Vanstone said they were likely dumped by people smugglers on Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea off Western Australia’s far north coast.

Defence sources told AAP they were from Burma.

All eight, who were picked up by navy vessels, will undergo health checks on Christmas Island but will ultimately be transferred to Nauru for processing.

But the Australian Greens said they should not be sent so far from Australia.

“The last time anyone was sent to Nauru was over four years ago,” Greens senator Kerry Nettle said. “Given today’s defeat of the migration legislation this looks like another cynical and cruel political move.”

Senator Vanstone was quick to point out the implications had the group made it to the Australian mainland.

“It’s worth noting today that had these people arrived on the mainland they would, if they were found not to be genuine refugees, (have been) able to stay here for years on end contesting that decision,” she said.

Under existing immigration processing laws, they would have been processed offshore anyway because they did not make it to the mainland.

Senator Vanstone indicated the Government may now try other ways to toughen immigration laws.

“We’ll consider all of the options that become apparent as time goes by,” she said.

But the Government was not planning to change the criteria for assessing asylum claims.

The dumped legislation was drafted following Indonesian anger over Australia’s decision to grant asylum to 43 people from Indonesia’s contested Papua province earlier this year.

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