Australia's new iron lady turns on migrants in bid for power

When Julia Gillard was first elected to parliament in l998, she was quick to challenge the idea that immigrants were a problem for Australia.

In her maiden speech, the future prime minister - a Welsh migrant herself - challenged the anti-Asian line of Pauline Hanson, the nationalist Right-winger whose views enjoyed widespread support at the time.

Ms Gillard told parliament that Ms Hanson, would "never understand that the vast majority of migrants come here determined to make a better life for themselves and for their kids and they are prepared to work unbelievably hard to achieve that dream".

They were bold words, and Ms Hanson and Ms Gillard have been as diametrically opposed as any pair of politicians in the past 20 years. But now that Ms Gillard has risen to leadership of the Labour party and the prime ministership after the sudden downfall of Kevin Rudd, something fundamental seems to have changed.

Yesterday, Ms Gillard called for a national debate on the asylum-seeker issue and issued a new crackdown on illegal migrants trying to enter Australia. While rejecting the Opposition's pledge to return to the so-called Pacific solution, in which, under the conservative John Howard government, asylum seekers were sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, she proposed an alternative which sounded remarkably similar.

Ms Gillard suggested a processing centre in East Timor or maybe New Zealand.

"The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell," she said. "Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre."

Her explanation for this new government tack would have done her verbose predecessor Mr Rudd proud - even if it reversed his policies. She was "not interested in pursuing a new Pacific solution" but instead a "regional protection framework".

"Spot the difference from the Howard years, if any," one political observer commented. Spot the flaw too. Even East Timor's deputy prime minister, Jose Luis Guterres, insisted last night that it was too early to establish a processing centre.

The former head of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, also raised questions about Labour's new approach, claiming that offshore processing did not deter asylum seekers or people smugglers.

It is not a view that is shared by the Right-wing Liberal-led opposition coalition, which believes its hardline approach to illegal migrants during the decade-long Howard era put a stop to the flow of boat people arriving on Australian shores. And Ms Hanson herself is on the same page. Unsurprisingly enough, the Queensland firebrand believes the Labour Party should take a more robust stance against migrants, especially those arriving by boat.

She has even called on the government to cancel financial aid to Indonesia if it is unable to secure its borders and stop the flow of asylum seekers setting out for Australia.

The statistics make awkward reading for Ms Gillard, who is desperate to neutralise the problem ahead of the general election that is expected in the next few months. Since Labour won office in 2007, 143 boats carrying more than 6,500 asylum seekers have ended up in Australian waters, many of them being processed on Christmas Island, south of the Indonesian archipelago.

The influx has placed enormous pressure on detention centres on the island and the mainland, prompting many Australians to believe it is the direct result of the government's relaxation of border security.

The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, was quick to jump on the government's vulnerability yesterday. He unveiled his own immigration policy only minutes before Ms Gillard's announcement. "I have a simple message to the Australian people - if you want to stop the boats you've got to change the government," he said.

In addition to promising a return to the Howard government's so-called Pacific Solution, he also declared that asylum seekers who deliberately destroyed their identification documents would be automatically denied refugee status.

With both major parties in agreement that the boat people should be processed elsewhere, the imminent election campaign could turn into a battle between he or she who seems the toughest.

Ms Gillard has made it clear that she wants a rational debate where racism and political correctness are not an issue. "For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant, it certainly doesn't make them racist, it means they're expressing a genuine view that they're anxious about border security," she added.

The irony is that the renewed debate on the boat-people issue places Ms Gillard, Mr Abbott and Ms Hanson in much the same camp. Ms Gillard may still believe that immigrants come to Australia to work unbelievably hard, but one thing is clear: at least until the election, she is unlikely to say anything of the kind.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most