Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gillard's East Timor Plan

On the day she becama Prime Minister, Julia Gillard identified finding a solution to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers as being vital for Australia's future.

Unfortunately, the solution she's decided to push, sending people to East Timor, has been tried before. This column appeared in Saturday's Canberra Times.


Julia Gillard’s proposal to establish a refugee processing centre in East Timor was earlier tried by John Howard before it was blocked by the UN, which intervened to stop the plan.

It was late at night in New York when the United Nations Secretary General placed a critical phone call to (then) prime minister John Howard. The Liberal leader had been attempting to set up a holding centre to process asylum seekers in the impoverished island of East Timor. UN boss Kofi Annan had a simple message – ‘no’. After taking advice from his own officials on the island, Annan had apparently decided that Timor would be unable to cope with hosting a processing centre. Howard then abandoned the idea and invented the Pacific solution; sending the asylum seekers to Nauru.

Timor was always going to be a controversial choice for a processing centre, and now some senior public servants are speaking out to say they cannot understand why Julia Gillard has resurrected the proposal now. They say not enough has changed on the island since the original idea was rejected by the UN, just prior to the 2001 Australian election.

At the end of August in that year, East Timor was being administered by a joint UN and East Timorese council, headed by Sérgio de Mello, but including José Ramos-Horta. A Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, had picked up a boat-load of 433 asylum seekers as their boat was sinking, but was being refused entry to either Indonesian ports or to Christmas Island. With an election approaching the Tampa’s human cargo represented a massive political headache for Howard, who was attempting to demonstrate he could control Australia’s borders. He desperately needed to find somewhere offshore where he could send the asylum seekers to stop them landing where they would become his responsibility.

The Indonesian president was refusing to accept Howard’s phone calls. A bevy of human rights lawyers was preparing to lodge asylum claims the minute the ship entered Australian territorial waters. The small island bordering the Timor Sea to the north appeared the obvious place to send the vessel: that way the PM could prevent it touching Australia while still accommodating the legal requirements of the possible refugees.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer placed the critical phone call to Dili that initiated the idea. But De Mello, the UN’s Administrator, didn’t like what he heard. Downer was asking if the asylum seekers could be held, temporarily, in an already operating refugee camp. De Mello didn’t absolutely rule out the idea, but as soon as Downer was off the phone he rapidly got in contact with headquarters in New York. The more the UN thought about the idea, the more opposed it was to the concept.

The UN High Commission for Refugees was brought into the discussions before dawn had broken in Geneva. Journalist Marian Wilkinson reported at the time that the official handling the issue, SØren Jessen-Petersen, insisted that processing people on the island would be a “bad idea”. Amongst other problems there was the possibility that the asylum seekers would refuse to land on East Timor. This is exactly what happened earlier this year, when a boatload of Sri Lankan’s wouldn’t disembark in the Indonesian port of Merak, remaining there for more than six months.

By the time Annan and Howard finally spoke the UN was completely against the deal – it’s uncertain if Timorese leaders like Horta were even consulted about the Australian proposal, although a UN racism congress in South Africa heard about the idea and condemned it emphatically. The former Irish President and Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson was in Durban at the time. She bitterly accused Australia of failing to accept its responsibilities to deal with the asylum seekers.

Recognising that the door had effectively closed on the Timor option, Downer had begun negotiating with other islands that might be prepared to accept the Tampa’s human cargo. In the end it was Nauru’s President René Harris (educated at Geelong College) who provided a solution for Howard. A later request to allow the asylum seekers to be flown to Nauru from Dili airport was also refused by the UN and as a result they had to sail to the Pacific on the HMAS Manoora.

Julia Gillard only became Labor’s Immigration spokesperson some four months after Howard had appealed to East Timor to host the processing centre, however other senior public servants have become concerned about her attempt to resurrect Howard’s proposal. In off-the-record briefings these people are insisting that, although the island is now independent, it remains unable to provide a solution to Australia’s asylum seeker problem.

“The Timorese themselves are totally opposed to it,” says a former official. “She (Gillard) obviously didn’t run this idea past anyone in the department before jumping on the blower to Horta and sprouting off about it in the media. It’s crazy.”

This person is concerned the proposal to accommodate asylum-seekers in East Timor demonstrates that the new PM is operating unilaterally, rather than working through cabinet and taking advice from the public service. Kevin Rudd was also criticised for centralising policy formation within his own office, rather than accepting advice provided by the public service.
But the issue also raises questions about whether enough has changed in East Timor for the island to now accommodate a processing centre. When she took over from Rudd, Gillard announced she’d identified three particular problems she was hoping to solve before the election; the mining tax, climate change, and finding a new way of dealing with the increasing number of claims from asylum seekers arriving at Christmas Island. A team is currently still engaged in desultory consultations with the government of East Timor about the possibility of a new processing centre, but it’s understood that progress is agonisingly slow.

The politicians on the island have already unanimously rejected Gillard’s idea in a vote of parliament. Some appear determined to oppose such a centre, although the possibility remains that if enough money can be found to significantly boost Timor’s revenue a way may be found through the otherwise implacable opposition. Then the island would finally host the asylum-seekers Howard was so keen to send back in 2001.

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