Tony Abbott. Photo / AP

Tony Abbott. Photo / AP

If Prime Minister Julia Gillard is serious about offshore processing of asylum seekers she should pick up the phone and call Nauru, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says.

Abbott said the prime minister was desperately trying to spin her way out of trouble after prematurely announcing a refugee processing centre could be built in East Timor.

When the Liberal leader vowed to reintroduce offshore processing earlier this year he didn't name possible third countries that could host a facility. But he's now suggesting Nauru is an option.

"Shortly after I made that announcement (in May) Nauru said they've already got an Australian-built detention facility on the island," Abbott told ABC Radio. "They'd be happy to rehost one of these centres."

Abbott said if Gillard was serious about offshore processing she should "put in a phone call to Nauru".

The opposition leader defended his decision not to name countries earlier.

"You can't have these sorts of negotiations from opposition," he said.

"I didn't make the mistake of thinking I could just glibly nominate a country and then everything would happen smoothly."

Nauru was used to detain asylum seekers under the former coalition government's so-called Pacific Solution.

On Tuesday, Gillard said she'd discussed with East Timor "the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre".

But on Thursday she was back-pedalling fast. "I'm not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location," she said.

Abbott says the prime minister shouldn't have made the announcement without getting "prior consent" from the East Timorese Government.

"She's desperately trying to spin her way out of a problem and I don't think the public will be fooled by this," he said.

"I think what we've seen is poor judgment from the prime minister and a total failure of process from the Government.

"Julia Gillard should have got this deal done before she made a public announcement."

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said Gillard had shown poor judgment on the issue.

"And an appalling lack of respect," she told ABC Radio, adding that the policy idea was not popular in East Timor.

"My sources ... say that this has caused offence (and) Prime Minister (Xanana) Gusmao is distancing his government from it.

"I don't think you will see any progress on this (proposal)."

Bishop also wants Gillard to reveal other countries she would like to host a regional processing centre.

"The only other countries (signatories to the United Nations refugee convention) in the region are in the Pacific - Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Fiji.

"Ms Gillard should state clearly whether she has those countries ... in her sights."