Rudd forced to back down on Timor

Phillip Coorey

September 13, 2010

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One of Kevin Rudd's first tasks as Foreign Minister will be to negotiate with East Timor to establish a processing centre for asylum seekers there - a policy about which he had deep misgivings when prime minister.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, affirmed yesterday that while she and Mr Rudd would work together on foreign policy, along with cabinet, she would be the ultimate authority.

''Ultimately, of course, I'm the leader,'' she said.

The internal push for the East Timor solution began about six months before Mr Rudd was ousted and was driven by concern among ministers that asylum seekers would soon become a big political problem.

It would need a policy response, but to the frustration of his colleagues, Mr Rudd would not sanction the idea. His refusal to confront the issue contributed to his downfall. Ms Gillard cited border protection as one area in which the government under Mr Rudd had ''lost its way''.

Mr Rudd was confirmed as the Foreign Minister in the reshuffle Ms Gillard announced on Saturday. Stephen Smith, who held the portfolio for three years, moved to Defence.

His ministerial colleague, Anthony Albanese, said yesterday that Mr Smith ''did the right thing by the team'', all but confirming Mr Rudd had demanded the portfolio.

Ms Gillard told the ABC that one of Mr Rudd's tasks would be to work with East Timor and other countries in the region to establish the processing centre that she announced just days after replacing Mr Rudd on June 24.

The centre, flagged as a long-term solution to people smuggling, would operate under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Asylum seekers who arrived in the region would be sent there for processing and, if successful, farmed out to signatory nations for resettlement.

About six months before the centre was flagged, the then immigration minister, Chris Evans, raised it with the UNHCR and made indirect approaches to East Timor.

Sources said Mr Rudd was at best lukewarm because he had doubts about how it would be received in East Timor, especially by the Fretilin party and the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, who has since criticised it.

On June 23, Mr Rudd pointedly made no mention of it during a bilateral meeting with the visiting East Timorese President, Jose Ramos-Horta.

That night, after Ms Gillard had challenged him, Mr Rudd said he would not ''lurch to the right'' on boat people as a condition of keeping his job.

Yesterday, Ms Gillard said neither she nor Mr Rudd wanted asylum seekers risking their lives at sea and neither supported people smuggling. ''It's the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective,'' she said.

Ms Gillard's reshuffle saw Penny Wong shift from Climate Change to Finance, while Greg Combet was promoted to cabinet and inherited Climate Change. The other promotion, Craig Emerson, became Trade Minister.

The Opposition accused Ms Gillard of rewarding those who engineered Mr Rudd's downfall despite her promise during the election campaign not to.

The parliamentary secretary Bill Shorten entered the outer ministry as Assistant Treasurer, while senators David Feeney and Don Farrell became parliamentary secretaries.

Mark Arbib remained in the outer ministry but with boosted portfolio responsibilities. Ms Gillard also promoted young turks including Jason Clare, David Bradbury, and Mark Dreyfus.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, will reshuffle his frontbench this week, with growing Coalition calls for him to move on veterans of the Howard era and elevate young talent.

source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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