Federal Politics

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Houston delivers 'hard-headed' and 'realistic' counsel

ANGUS HOUSTON, once an Air Force helicopter pilot, was awarded a medal for bravery in 1979 after saving three shipwrecked sailors in a gale.

As chief of the Australian Defence Force, he oversaw military operations in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2001, he famously put his career on the line by disputing defence minister Peter Reith's claim that asylum seekers' children had been thrown overboard.

But when he and his fellow panelists faced a roomful of reporters and human rights advocates yesterday to announce their solution for Australia's imbroglio over those who would take to boats in search of refuge, you'd imagine they were facing a firing squad.

Houston's voice was so soft you strained to hear it, and his colleagues' faces were pale as a wintry day.

Angus Houston, Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle. You'd almost imagine they were pseudonyms from a Tivoli act, but these were serious men on a fraught mission.

It was, said Houston, one of the most difficult jobs he and his fellows had tackled in their lives. A storm at sea, the Taliban and Peter Reith? Mere aggravations compared with stepping into the asylum stand-off between Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Christine Milne, apparently.


Houston, L'Estrange and Aristotle were clearly aware their recommendations would fall short of the Gillard government's hopes, would be shamelessly cherry-picked by the Abbott opposition and almost entirely dismissed by the Greens.

But they had been asked to report on a matter that had proved beyond the wit of Australia's political class. Who could forget the last days of Parliament six weeks ago when politicians roared and wept and failed utterly to reach agreement on asylum and boats?

''I said this would be a challenging task and it has proved to be so,'' said Houston.

But to do nothing was unacceptable. All those lives lost and put at risk upon the sea.

And so the three men had drawn up their recommendations for shifting from a free-for-all that invited dangerous voyages to a series of proposals that were ''hard-headed but not hard-hearted; realistic not idealistic''.

To the opposition, this meant a green light for the Pacific Solution: Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The government was left with a glimmer of hope for its Malaysian plan, though it would require more legal safeguards. For immigration advocates, the panel suggested an increase to 20,000 in the humanitarian program, and a minimum doubling of the refugee intake.

In all there were 22 recommendations, none pleasing everyone, but together, a strategy that looked capable of earning a compromise agreement between government and opposition.

Turns out the Parliament, so regularly hardly more than a Tivoli act itself, needed three bold outsiders with soft voices, stout hearts and six weeks to think about it.

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