Labor faces an embarrassing backdown on its proposed Timor-Leste refugee processing centre, with the party likely to reinstate the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ of its predecessor Howard government, according to Alexander Downer.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister and current UN special envoy to Cyprus said the Howard government in which he served had also been rebuked by Timor-Leste over establishing such a centre.
‘An East Timor (Timor-Leste) processing centre is never going to happen,’ Downer said. ‘To establish a processing centre there has to be a legal framework within which it operates, it can’t operate in a legal vacuum and the Australian government presumably wouldn’t want it to. You need legislation in East Timor in order to do that and that means you need the support of its parliament, and that’s not going to be forthcoming at any time.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Downer, who served as foreign minister in the conservative Liberal/Nationals coalition government from 1996 to 2007, said the Timor-Leste government had told Canberra that it wan’t in favour of such a centre as it would cause ‘complications.’
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed East Timor as the likely destination for an offshore refugee processing centre on July 6. Gillard later backtracked on her proposal following negative reaction from East Timor, human rights groups and Australia’s Opposition parties, and after a cautious response from regional leaders.
The asylum seeker issue was one of the policy priorities announced by Gillard on assuming the leadership in June, with Labor seeking to negate Opposition attacks over the rising number of refugee boats reaching Australian territory.
Under the proposal raised by the new prime minister—and discussed with Indonesia and New Zealand along with East Timor—asylum seekers would be processed under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in East Timor, and then sent to UN signatory nations such as New Zealand.
However, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Timor-Leste’s Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres said his country was ‘very unlikely’ to accept such a centre, while the country’s main opposition party Fretilin also rejected the proposal.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott accused Gillard of offering a quick fix that would unravel, and while Timor Leste’s President Ramos-Horta was reportedly more receptive, the response from the government was overwhelmingly negative.
Abbott has pledged to ‘stop the boats’ as one of his key campaign promises, endorsing former Prime Minister John Howard’s declaration that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
According to an ABC News report, Downer ‘personally called the president of Nauru to discuss reopening the Pacific nation’s asylum seeker processing centre,’ an action that drew criticism from Labor for allegedly violating UN regulations.
Labor MP Melissa Parke, who chairs Australia’s UN Parliamentary Group, was quoted as saying Downer should quit his UN role if he wished to participate in Australian politics.
But Downer denied breaching any regulations, telling The Diplomat that it was a ‘seventeenth order issue’ and that Labor should concentrate on its political opponents in Parliament and not him.
‘If the suggestion here is that I’m not able to speak to heads of government because I work for the UN, well I’ve never seen a UN code that people in the UN are not meant to speak to heads of government,’ he said.