PM Julia Gillard retreats on Timor plan

JULIA Gillard has dramatically backtracked on her plan to build a refugee processing facility in East Timor.

The Prime Minister's backdown came after the tiny nation's parliament formally condemned the idea as unworkable.

After two days of talking up the notion of an East Timorese solution to the boatpeople issue, the Prime Minister yesterday insisted she had never said the facility should be located in East Timor.

As East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao displayed indifference to the proposal, President Jose Ramos-Horta confirmed through a spokesman yesterday he had discussed with Ms Gillard the "possibility" of having a processing centre in his country.

Ms Gillard, who identified border protection as a key policy priority after seizing power from Kevin Rudd last month, told the Lowy Institute on Tuesday: "In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos-Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region."

Although her speech did not explicitly say the centre would be established in East Timor - one of the poorest nations in the world with a GDP per capita of about $US500 ($595) - media organisations across the nation reported the link between the fact that she had called East Timor's President and the notion of the centre being in East Timor. Ms Gillard did not dispute the reports until yesterday in an interview with Brisbane radio station 4BC recorded as Dili's ambivalence was becoming increasingly clear.

Insisting she was happy to be judged on what she had said previously, she said: "I did outline a vision and the vision was for a regional processing centre and that is important because it completely undercuts the people-smuggling market. I'm not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location." Ms Gillard said the location for the centre would "emerge from the discussions with our regional partners".

Last night she attempted to clarify her comments, telling Perth's 6PR radio station she was not prepared to "unilaterally" announce a definitive site for a processing centre in another country. She also refused to rule out Manus Island, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea, as a possible alternative site.

Dr Ramos-Horta's spokesman said last night Ms Gillard and the President had discussed East Timor as a site for the centre. "Whether it would be hosted in Timor Leste was always an open issue - there has been no decision taken by the President," foreign policy spokesman Jose Meirelles said. "But Timor Leste as a possibility was real, although we can talk so far only in the sphere of possibilities."

Earlier yesterday, Mr Gusmao shrugged off the idea of a regional asylum-seeker processing centre, telling Dr Ramos-Horta to deal with the issue.

Underlining his apparent indifference towards the plan, Mr Gusmao allowed his own party to join in a unanimous condemnation of it in the East Timorese parliament yesterday morning.

As the house was denouncing the proposal, Mr Gusmao and Dr Ramos-Horta held a drawn-out meeting at the presidential palace to compose their response to Ms Gillard's request.

Mr Gusmao emerged declaring that his government would, as a matter of procedure, consider any formal proposal from Canberra but, when asked what he thought of Ms Gillard's plan, laughed: "What plan?"

Dr Ramos-Horta later said East Timor would put a stringent series of conditions on any asylum-seeker processing scheme, including that it not cost Dili anything, that there be a limit on numbers and that it have a finite finishing date.

"This country will not become a detention centre for anyone," he said.

After the proposal was denounced in parliament, a spokesman for Mr Gusmao's CNRT party, Aderito Hugo, told The Australian: "We don't want to become an Australian political commodity based on the fact Julia Gillard is shortly to go to elections. This Australian approach doesn't consider us as a sovereign nation. Australia seems to regard its smaller neighbours as puppet states."

Tony Abbott said Ms Gillard's idea was just a thought bubble. "No credible prime minister ought to announce government policy that crucially depends upon the co-operation of another country without first securing that co-operation," the Opposition Leader said. "There has been a failure of judgment and of due process. Any serious acquaintance with governmental structures should have alerted Julia Gillard to the dangers of confusing a head of state with a head of government, and any prior discussion with her Foreign Minister should have prevented this half-baked scheme from ever seeing the light of day."

Earlier yesterday, visiting the planned community of Springfield, in Brisbane's southwest, Ms Gillard indicated she did not expect to make major progress on her regional asylum-seeker plan before the upcoming federal election. But she said Australian diplomats were already consulting other countries about the idea.

She said she expected to speak to Mr Gusmao in the next week.

A spokesman for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said that when Ms Gillard phoned him on Monday to discuss her plan, there was no mention of East Timor being the location of any centre.


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