SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia Sunday defended plans for a regional asylum-seeker centre which left new Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a foreign-policy muddle just a fortnight after taking office.
"No one is underestimating or under-appreciating just how difficult an exercise this is," Smith told public broadcaster ABC.
"And people who expect that you can announce it with a bow-tie on top, all locked up on day one, frankly don't appreciate the reality of a very difficult issue for all of the countries in the region, not just Australia."
Australia's first woman leader, in her first foreign policy speech as polls loom, said she was in talks with East Timor about housing poor Asian migrants who arrive off northern Australia in rickety people-smuggling boats.
Gillard was also criticised for raising the plan with East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta rather than the more powerful Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and for not consulting Indonesia, a major transit point.
"There's been very informal discussions at lower levels over a period about whether a regional processing centre might be appropriate," he said.
"We've decided to raise the matter now formally, to take the cudgels up. It's the first time we've seen a regional leader say let's see if we can get this effected."
Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd in a surprise leadership challenge last month, and then quickly defused a lingering mining tax row by striking a compromise deal, in an apparent effort to clear the decks for early elections.
But she immediately ran into trouble over the long-running immigration issue, which arouses strong passions in voters. On Friday, she narrowly avoided being hit by an egg hurled by an angry protester.
Both Gillard's ruling Labor Party and the conservative Liberals have unveiled tough policies on asylum-seekers, with opposition leader Tony Abbott promising a return to the "Pacific Solution" of mandatory detention abroad.
The opposition has also called for a crackdown on the "massive explosion" of foreign students, including many from Asia, who seek permanent residency.
"That's not dog-whistling, that's plain xenophobia," he said. "You sometimes think that Pauline Hanson hasn't gone at all."