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Malaysian Solution 2.0: Gillard turns heat on Abbott for offshore processing

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants Tony Abbott to put up or shut up on offshore processing. AAP

Prime Minister Julia Gillard today announced the Government would seek to legislate in order to revive the “Malaysian Solution” ruled illegal by the High Court earlier this month.

The plan would see Australia send 800 asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Malaysia in exchange for accepting 4000 certified refugees.

The Prime Minister today called on Tony Abbott to support amendments to existing legislation to enable the Government to implement the plan.

However the Opposition continues to insist that the Nauru solution be revived, a proposal rejected by Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

University of New South Wales Professor of Politics Mark Rolfe explains the implications, for both the Government and Opposition, of the push to legislate to ensure a future for the offshore processing.

Is this an attempt by the Government to wedge Tony Abbott into supporting the Malaysia Solution?

Yes. The Government started this on Saturday when Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was talking about the cost of the Nauru Solution being close to a billion dollars and that it won’t work anyway.

[This is] because most of the people detained on Nauru arrived in Australia anyway under the Howard Government. The figures are disputed. They use different percentages but on that point, they are trying to batter him.

I suspect as well that they want to push the opposition to say “How long are you going to keep insulting Malaysia? How long are you going to keep on damaging our relations with Malaysia?”

They [Malaysia] want a deal. They have 94,000 refugees there and they want to get rid of some of these people, understandably. So the Government is saying “Are you going to keep slagging off Malaysia?”

There are delicacies in introducing foreign relations into domestic politics which the Gillard Government would want to worry about but they would be trying to wear down the Coalition on more than one item, aside from the cost of Nauru, on other areas.

They will try and stick to their guns on this issue and say to the Opposition: “How long will you keep up this negativity?”

What are the risks for Abbott in supporting the legislation, and what risks in voting it down?

The risk in backing down is that he lets the Government off the hook. He has been holding them on a number of hooks, so this Malaysian deal was one more hook to string up Gillard.

He wouldn’t necessarily want to let her off that one. He would want to keep up the pressure.

The risk in supporting it is in letting off pressure and giving the Government some quarter. He’s been successful in painting them as having no options. The problem is if the Government decides “we’re going to stick to our guns” and push Abbott on this.

Then it is questions of where he goes from there. Does he continue to obstruct the Government and we have more refugees arriving and there’s people being piled up in detention centres and the Government says “well, look, there is an option but the Coalition won’t help out and hence we’ve got all these people.”

They would says that instead of spending a billion dollars on Nauru, we could have solution now, we could have a deal with Malaysia. The cost is that he could look obstructive while the numbers of refugees pile up.

Will this further alienate the “inner city professional” element of the Labor vote who are already drifting to the Greens?

I think the Government has decided that it can’t win by trying to please both wings, both the right and the left. It has decided to make a stand and be seen as not shifting. It is all in a context of being seen to have shifted on so many things in the past and not sticking to anything.

Now there is the option of appearing to look determined and sticking to their guns. That could be quite good for appearing to stare down the Greens because of the common accusation that the Government is just dancing to the Greens tune.

We have already seen the Greens come out to say that they are firmly against this “unholy alliance” so now the Government can say that they are going to stick to their guns on this and not flip flop.

Is this the ultimate bluff by Gillard? Can she continue on as PM if she loses this vote?

There is a way out for the Coalition to agree to this. It is all very broad and Gillard has said this in her statement at the press conference. It is broad agreement and there is no naming of specific countries, so no countries are ruled out.

There can be this accommodation by the Coalition. It is a bit of a gamble. I don’t think at this stage the Prime Ministership is riding on this. They were saying that a couple of weeks ago about the Craig Thomson thing.

It is easy in this climate to say every problem that arises is a threat to Gillard in The Lodge.

The Government is now attempting to legislate its way around a High Court decision: how will this play in the electorate?

There is an awareness of the High Court as an important institution and as an umpire, an impartial entity. There would be the general idea [in people’s minds] of “is this Government complying with the High Court’s decision or is it playing around with it?”

There was an ex-Solicitor General in the Sydney Morning Herald today saying that the High Court did not rule out offshore processing and that there’s been a number of misconceptions floating around in the media about the decision, about it being activist court and about the purported ruling out of offshore processing.

If the Government can find a legal solution that complies then I think that covers that front and they can say they are compliant with the High Court.

Could Gillard yet salvage a political win from the situation?

A number of people in the Government have been saying “Julia is strong, she can take all this stuff.” One rhetorical option may then be, with this issue, of saying “Julia can cop all this flak that is being thrown at her but she’s tough. You might not like her but she’s tough”.

This could then be in contrast to how it has been with sliding around the place. Then they can pose this to Abbott and say: “Look at all the abuse he throws at her, look at all the abuse his acolytes throw at her on the radio, in demonstrations and she sticks to her guns.

That might be a rhetorical option they are thinking of.

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