Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd gestures as he speaks to his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, before a photo session in Bali yesterday. Picture: AFP Source: AFP
AUSTRALIA'S plan for a regional refugee processing centre in East Timor has been dealt a crippling blow, with the head of Timor's delegation to the Bali people-smuggling summit rejecting Labor's bid for one-on-one talks about the controversial proposal.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who attended the talks, has insisted the idea, which was not mentioned at the Bali summit, should be pursued as part of bilateral discussions with Dili. But the head of Timor's delegation to Bali, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Alberto Carlos, refused to commit his country to direct talks with Canberra.
"For us, it's better to take a regional discussion because this is a regional issue," Mr Carlos told The Australian. "It's broader, wider than a bilateral issue."
Mr Carlos was downbeat about the chances of establishing the centre, saying his country had more pressing problems and was not a suitable location.
"Our land is very very small," he told the ABC. "Very small, one million population, the income is still very low.
"A lot of infrastructure needs to be built, so that's our main priority".
But as ministers and delegates began leaving the two-day talks, the Gillard government secured a minor victory after members of the Bali summit agreed to consider the possibility of establishing a "centre or centres" somewhere in the region to process asylum claims.
The 41-member summit ended yesterday with member states endorsing the idea of a regional co-operation framework, a set of principles that would seek to harmonise the management of asylum claims across the region.
Some of the suggested areas for future co-operation included deeper information and intelligence-sharing arrangements and greater consistency in determining asylum claims.
Mr Bowen said the non-binding statement issued at the end of the summit was a "very significant" step in improving co-operation.
"Today, the Bali Process members outlined the architecture of the framework," Mr Bowen said.
"It's now open for bilateral discussions to fill in the details, to build the walls of the regional agreement that has been laid out by members today."
Quizzed at the closing press conference about Timor's apparent reluctance, Mr Bowen acknowledged the proposal remained controversial in Dili, but indicated the government would press on with its Timor idea.
"Certainly the communications we've received at the very highest levels of the East Timorese government is that the discussions should continue," Mr Bowen said.
The setbacks prompted a scathing attack from opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who called on the Gillard government to dump the proposal, which was announced in July last year before the federal election.
"To watch the procession of regional leaders forced to politely nod and engage in this conversation has been excruciating . . . as much for the rest of Australia watching this farce," he said.
Addressing delegates at the summit's opening session earlier yesterday, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said inconsistencies in managing asylum claims were common in regions across the world.
"Often we have a problem of people going from one country to another because of inconsistency of approaches," Mr Rudd said.
He described "core principles" of a regional protection framework, which he said had never been achieved elsewhere in the world.
"A regional co-operation document for the first time would give us a framework within which individual countries can agree new anti-people-smuggling arrangements between them," he said. "Including the possibility of a regional centre, or regional centres, to deal with the problem."
Speaking before Mr Rudd, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa rallied delegates, saying the region "urgently needs to find common ground".
"We must address all aspects of the problem. We must strengthen co-operation, expand our network and think outside the box," he said.
The view of the Australian delegation is that before talks can begin in earnest on where to build a processing centre, there must first be in place a common approach to managing asylum-seekers.
UNHCR regional head Ric Towle was pleased with the outcome of the Bali talks.
"The commitment to the regional co-operation framework and a number of other elements related to it are a solid foundation for building future cooperation," Mr Towle said.