By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - The tragic sinking of a crowded refugee boat, which left 30 dead after it crashed into rocks on Australia's remote Christmas Island on Wednesday, has renewed political pressure for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to change her refugee policy.
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Yokohama, south of Tokyo November 14, 2010. (REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)
Gillard on Friday said 42 people survived the accident and 30 bodies had been found, but the final death toll from the accident may never be known.
The accident has put the spotlight on the government's refugee policy and has the potential to unsettle Gillard's minority government, which rules with support from three independent and one Green lawmaker.
Here are some questions and answers about the possible political repercussions.
COULD THE ASYLUM SEEKER-ISSUE BRING DOWN THE GOVERNMENT?
No. The issue is highly unlikely to bring down the minority government, despite pressure from the Greens and at least two independent lawmakers to soften the tough policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers.
The independents and Greens would not desert Gillard to form government with the conservative opposition on this issue, because the opposition would seek to toughen its stand against boat arrivals rather than soften the policy. The independents and Greens would also want to avoid an early election, as they could lose their seats, or lose their current influence over the minority government.
The opposition has regularly blamed the government's softer policies on asylum seekers for encouraging refugee boats carrying mainly Iraqi and Afghani asylum seekers from Indonesia.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS FROM A RENEWED ASYLUM SEEKER DEBATE?
The renewed refugee policy debate could be damaging for Gillard's ruling Labor Party, which is divided over whether to take a firmer line against boat arrivals or soften mandatory detention for asylum seekers. Gillard must continue to appease the independents and Green lawmakers and those on the left in her party, but without alienating the party's powerful right.
The government is struggling to make any gains in opinion polls. Softening detention policies may help it in inner-city electorates where voters are broadly pro-boatpeople, but risks alienating voters in outer suburbs of major cities, where voters are opposed to greater immigration, arguing infrastructure such as public transport and hospitals cannot cope with a bigger population. So-called "mortgage belt" seats traditionally determine elections, but one is not due until mid-2013.
In 2001, the then Labor opposition lost what was regarded as an unloseable election on the issue of asylum seekers and has struggled ever since to control the hot button issue.
WILL THE ISSUE HURT THE GOVERNMENT'S RESOLVE TO REFORM?
Any drop in opinion poll support over asylum seekers could weaken the government's resolve to deliver other key reforms. That could weaken the government's hopes of securing political support for a proposed 30 percent mining tax and plans to put a price on carbon emissions.
WILL THE GOVERNMENT CHANGE ITS ASYLUM POLICY?
No. The government would not want to be seen to be weakening on border protection or following the conservative opposition's tougher stance. The government will continue to intercept asylum boats, rather than allow them to land on the mainland where asylum seekers would gain greater legal rights. It will continue to use its refugee processing centre on Christmas Island to detain asylum seekers, although the large number of arrivals has forced the opening of a new on-shore processing centre.
Gillard's policy in the dead-heat election last August was for Australia to set up a regional processing centre in East Timor. But Dili remains cool on the plan. The conservative opposition wants to re-open a South Pacific processing centre on Nauru to deter boat arrivals. If Gillard can get East Timor on side it would be a major political coup for her government and could lay to rest the issue of asylum seekers.
(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Alex Richardson)
Copyright © 2010 Reuters
source: thestar online