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Manus inquiry to put both Morrison and Labor under the spotlight

Bill Shorten is yet to call for Scott Morrison’s resignation. AAP/Joe Castro

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has promised the independent inquiry into the Manus Island rioting will examine his own and the government’s conduct since it assumed responsibility from Labor for the PNG solution.

The government is consulting Papua New Guinea on the inquiry’s terms of reference, as it comes under pressure to have at least an interim report presented in a reasonably short time frame.

The Coalition is also making sure the opposition wears some of the grief as well – the investigation, conducted by former secretary of the attorney-general’s department Robert Cornall, will look at how the centre was set up under the Labor government.

The opposition targeted Morrison in question time on Monday. But the ALP’s own difficulties with the issue are apparent. It reopened Manus and later then-PM Kevin Rudd came up with the “PNG solution”.

Labor also knows that “stopping the boats” - which the government has done - resonates with the voters, and it is fearful of being seen on the wrong side of that message. Indeed, it periodically points to Rudd’s action, saying it was the king hit against the people smuggling trade.

Bill Shorten started the opposition’s question time attack on the subject of jobs, despite Morrison being in the media spotlight after being forced to admit at the weekend that he had initially released incorrect information about where most of the violence had occurred (and where 23-year-old Reza Barati had been killed, although he had qualified his claim on that quickly).

While the Greens have called for Morrison’s head, Shorten has not done so. But the asylum seeker issue always produces differences (on substance and tactics) within Labor and shadow minister for human services Doug Cameron, from the left, went further than the leadership, saying Morrison should step down.

Morrison’s ministerial colleagues reached for the superlatives about his performance in stopping the boats, after Tony Abbott’s declaration on Sunday that “you don’t want a wimp running border protection”.

Queensland Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming did say Australia had to take responsibility for the death if it was in the centre. “We are obviously responsible because we hired the contractors who run that camp,” Mr Laming said to Fairfax Media.

Later Morrison told Parliament that the centre was run by PNG. “The Australian government supports the government of Papua New Guinea in running that centre through the arrangements established under the former government.”

This duality goes to the heart of the problem. The Australian government pays the bill for dealing with what is an Australian problem. The ultimate responsibility is Australia’s, but the grunt work is done by PNG. The result has been that both operations and accountability have been poor and a big price – in loss of life and injury - is now being paid.

In parliament Labor pressed for details of when Morrison knew what but failed to push for some important information – for example what Operation Sovereign Borders supremo Angus Campbell had found when he was sent there last week, or what, if anything, is being done to have processing (conducted by PNG officials with Australian mentoring) speeded up.

Nor, inexplicably, was Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quizzed by Labor about her just-completed talks in Cambodia. After her meeting her counterpart Hor Namhong said she had proposed Australia send a small group of asylum seekers there to live, and told reporters Cambodia would “very seriously” consider the request.

Asked by the media in Canberra about what she she had put, Bishop refused to be drawn, referring to co-operation under the Bali process. She cited confidentiality. When the Cambodians are apparently more forthcoming than our own government, you know the penchant for secrecy has indeed crossed into some crazy place.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest Labor’s Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles, here.

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