A diminished Gillard caught in a storm of her own making
Illustration: Michael Mucci
The most surprising aspect of Julia Gillard's first day of facing parliamentary questioning as the newly elected Prime Minister was her demeanour. Gone was the woman who had made an art of confidence, even mockery, during question time. On this day, September 29, she was pale and nervous. She even said the government's home insulation program ''was beset by problems. It became a mess''.
Australia's first woman Prime Minister was clearly shaken from having just emerged from a terrible election campaign. She had lost the election. More members sat opposite her, and on the crossbenches, than sat with her government. That she was still Prime Minister was due only to a political fluke, a statistical improbability, and the moral gymnastics of two rank opportunists, the independent MPs Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. This pair managed to turn the lowest combined vote in the entire nation for Labor and the Greens into a mandate for a Labor government, propped up by the Greens.
Three months on from her near-death experience, Gillard has still not grown into her new role. Never did this seem more evident than in the aftermath of the tragedy at Christmas Island with asylum seekers dying in the surf. What did she do in this moment of crisis? She called for a committee.
It is impossible to exaggerate the failure of Gillard and her government in their policies towards boat people. She was the principle author of a policy paper, Protecting Australia, Protecting the Australian Way, which became Labor policy. This policy has managed to create the worst of both worlds: cruel yet ineffective. And ludicrously expensive, like almost everything else this government does.
The detention centres are bulging. More are sprouting up. A detention centre has been set up in a Brisbane hotel. Another in Darwin. Another in Melbourne. Another at a remote air force base in Western Australia. Another at a second remote air force base in north Queensland. A defence housing site in the Adelaide Hills has been turned into yet another detention centre, to the consternation of the locals. As for Christmas Island, it became saturated a year ago.
The vast majority of those arriving by boat are being granted residency. The approval rate is roughly twice that of applicants processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is a green light to the people-smuggling trade.
The High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that large numbers claiming asylum status in Australia are not refugees. The government has been slow to handle legitimate refugee claims. It has been slow to handle illegitimate claims. Detention centres have seen riots, demonstrations, hunger strikes, self-harm and suicide by asylum seekers.
The courts are clotted with immigration appeals. The law itself has been rendered uncertain. The refugee intake quota has stayed set at 13,500, which means boat people are significantly displacing those awaiting processing by the UNHCR. This is the ''queue'' that refugee advocates pretend does not exist. It is another green light for people-smuggling.
The government has failed to prosecute those who blew up an asylum boat in 2009, killing five and injuring 40. It capitulated to demands from people with zero leverage during a standoff with Sri Lankans aboard the Oceanic Viking.
Almost 200 boatloads have arrived since Labor came to government. The people-smuggling trade is thriving. The budget for handling the refugee intake has blown out. Expensive charter flights are shuffling asylum seekers around the country. Children have drowned. Families have been separated.
All this manifold policy failure was compounded by Gillard when she came up with the panicky initiative of proposing an offshore refugee processing centre in East Timor. It was a ludicrous idea. East Timor is a failed state. It cannot be relied upon for anything.
During her first question time as an elected prime minister on September 29, Gillard was asked, with no delicacy, about yet another emergency Band-Aid being applied to the asylum seeker backlog:
Warren Entsch (Liberal National Party): ''I refer to the government's claim prior to and during the election that asylum seekers will not be housed at RAAF Base Scherger, nor would an immigration detention centre be built at RAAF Base Scherger. Now that the government has announced that RAAF Base Scherger will be used as a detention centre, how can anybody believe any promise made by this government?''
Gillard: ''I think we should be a little bit clear about the facts. What has been announced by the government is that the base will be used for short-term accommodation, while longer term options are investigated.''
This was misleading. On August 2, three weeks before the federal election, The Cairns Post reported that preparations were under way at the base to install a high-wire fence and outdoor lighting.
The newspaper quoted a government spokesman saying: ''On current plans, asylum seekers will not be housed at RAAF Scherger. Nor will an immigration detention centre be built at RAAF Scherger.''
Within weeks of the election, Scherger had become a detention centre. It now houses 300 male asylum seekers. This is all a Gillard-owned debacle on a scale even greater than her gold-plated Building the Education Revolution.
Even so, none of this is an excuse for the odious accusations that have been assiduously constructed by refugee advocates that the Gillard government, specifically the navy, was partly culpable for the drowning deaths of 30 asylum seekers at Christmas Island on Wednesday.
The moral chain in this matter is not complex. The people who sold places on the boat, and bought places on the boat, were assiduous in avoiding the process of legal arrival and safe passage. The protection of the state does not extend to illegal entry through ocean storms.
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