Defending Her Policies, Australian PM Calls For August Elections

In 2001, Australia, under the conservative John Howard government, devised a way to keep out the boatloads of refugees arriving with increasing regularity at its shores. It was called the Pacific Solution. Vessels filled with asylum-seekers approaching Australia's borders were swiftly blocked by the navy, and those onboard were taken to the Pacific island nation of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. There, their visa applications were processed over an indefinite amount of time and if successful, they were granted a temporary protection visa.

It was the most controversial immigration law since Australia's flagrantly xenophobic White Australia Policy, a law that ended in the '70s which initially excluded non-European people from settling on the continent, but became more relaxed towards various races near the end of its 70 year life-span. The Pacific Solution was widely condemned by human-rights groups: Amnesty said that it "offends human dignity." A report by Oxfam Australia and a domestic refugee advocacy group described the policy as "flawed," accusing the government of wasting tax-payer money, and failing to uphold Australia's commitment under international law to not return refugees to a place where they face danger. The report also found that detaining refugees indefinitely led to cases of mental illness. When Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, one of the first things he did as Prime Minister was to put an end to the Pacific Solution. Canberra started processing asylum-seekers on Australian territories, and providing successful applicants with a permanent visa. (See pictures of Australia.)

Australia's new PM Julia Gillard, who ousted Rudd on June 24, has surprised Australia by looking at a similar approach to asylum-seekers to that of Howard administration. Dubbed by the media as the East Timor Solution, 12 days after being in office, Gillard proposed using East Timor as an offshore facility to process the so-called "boat people" arriving to Australia. (East Timor, for its part, has yet to warm to the idea; on July 12 Dili voted against the proposal.) To further aggravate the situation Gillard discussed the idea of an offshore processing center with East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta, the ceremonial head of the nation, before Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao or his government.

Many Australians are confused as to why a despised policy could be making a comeback under a different guise. Gillard herself called the Pacific Solution "a costly and unsustainable farce" in 2002. But since Rudd came to power, irregular maritime arrivals have been escalating; most people enter Australian waters from Indonesia and come from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In April, Rudd suspended processing of refugee visas from either countries, mentioning that the "evolving" political situations in both countries made it safer for asylum-seekers to go home. The move was seen as hypocritical, especially considering that Australia still has troops in Afghanistan.

Gillard's proposal for a regional processing center in East Timor has been criticized for seeming like a quick fix to Rudd's immigration-reform legacy. "It [the East Timor Solution] might have been policy on the run, not thought through properly," says Elizabeth Van Acker a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University in Queensland. "It might be her trying to tidy up really complicated issues before the elections. She seems to be doing that very quickly, so she is bound to make mistakes."

In her three short weeks in power, Gillard, who is also in the Labor party, has attempted to address several concerns that cost Rudd his popularity. Rudd's 40% resources super-profit tax on the mining industry - the nail in his coffin which was protested by industry groups - will now be lowered to 30%, and only apply to coal and iron ore. And despite being one of the advisors that convinced Rudd to cancel the Emissions Trading Scheme, Gillard has made vague plans to address climate change after Australia's dismay at Rudd for failing to address global warming, a topic he described as the "greatest moral dilemma of our time." (See TIME's 2007 story on Kevin Rudd's political victory.)

Gillard has also steered away from Rudd's unpopular proposal of a "big Australia," aiming to boost the nation's population from 22 million to 36 million people by 2050. "I don't support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia," Gillard said in an interview. She renamed Tony Burke's title of "Minister for Population" to "Minister for Sustainable Population."

While these changes all reflect concerns expressed by the public in rating polls, they have also made it unclear as to what the Labor Party actually stands for. With elections called on July 17 for August 21, Labor's jumpy policy may cost them valuable votes. "I think the Labor Party look a little bit confused," said Van Acker. "A little bit rudderless so to speak, without a sense of direction. They come and go and change their mind, they are all over the place again, and I think that does more damage than the actual policy itself." A July 12 Nielsen Poll rating revealed that Labor's primary vote lead had dropped from 47 to 39% since Gillard became PM on June 24. (See pictures of Kevin Rudd's apology to the Aboriginal population.)

This week a new scandal erupted that could further lower Gillard's rating: Laurie Oakes a seasoned political journalist asked Gillard during a National Press Club appearance about a backdoor pact on July 15. Oakes apparently had knowledge of the events of June 23, where Gillard may have made an informal pact with Rudd to keep him in power until the federal elections, then planned for October. If Labor's ratings were to drop as a result of his leadership he would step down. Later, after learning that she had the numbers to defeat Rudd in a challenge, she negated the agreement. "It makes Gillard appear in favor of backroom deals...and untrustworthy because she didn't stick to the deal," wrote Dennis Shanahan, the political editor of The Australian.

Labor looks as if they have a started their campaign a week early. On July 14 Australia's Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that the federal budget will be $AU 3.1 billion in surplus by 2013, triple the predictions made in May. "If Labor wants the campaign to be about Gillard's reassuring trustworthiness and economic management, it's not going to happen while Labor bites itself to pieces," wrote Shanahan in response to recent allegations of Gillard's backdoor pact with Rudd.

But it may take more than savvy maneuvering for Gillard to survive the next elections. The 48-year-old has been open about being an unmarried atheist. She has a live-in partner, Tim Mathieson, a hairdresser dubbed by media as "Australia's first bloke," which is why her firm stance against gay marriage came as a surprise. "We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognizing that marriage is between a man and a woman," she told an Australian radio channel on June 30. Surprisingly she told the radio station that it was also her personal view. "Our new Prime Minister is an atheist. She doesn't believe in God, but she believes in the sanctity of God-blessed marriages except for gay people," wrote Derryn Hinch, a prominent radio personality, in The Australian. "Sounds hypocritical to me. She lives with her partner Tim Mathieson, a condition the church would quaintly describe as 'living in sin.'"

Norman Abjorensen a lecturer in political science at the Australian National University, doesn't think this move will harm her, politically. "She is a mature enough politician to avoid this can of worms," said Abjorensen. "From a cynical point of view, nothing has changed from the previous policy, so she won't lose voters."

On August 21, it will become clear if Gillard's decisions have been embraced by the Australian public. Van Acker believed that scheduling an election in a short period of time is a good tactic for Gillard. "She needs to take advantage of the honeymoon period that Australians have with her, because it's coming to an end."


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