Friday, September 2, 2011

It's time for real leadership on asylum seekers.


                                                     Prime Minister Julia Gillard

THE judicial and political events of the past few days - dominated by Wednesday's High Court decision to oppose an arrangement that would have seen asylum seekers sent to Malaysia - have thrown up serious questions about the federal government's abilities to govern and, in turn, about Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership credentials. Some perspective needs to be restored.
Any reasonable assessment of the Gillard government would acknowledge its reformist zeal. It has shown a steely determination, despite governing with the slimmest of minorities, to follow through with its pledges. In this newspaper's view, it would be a miscalculation to hastily assume that the High Court ruling is evidence that Australia needs a new government or a new leader, even though Labor's self-inflicted wounds are likely to cause a great deal of political blood-letting.

Under Ms Gillard's leadership, Labor has, for the most part, shown conviction and tenacity in tackling complex nation-building issues: the national broadband network, disability insurance, aged-care reform, education and (to its own cost) the carbon tax. Not all of these matters have been resolved, and some arguments, such as the Prime Minister's inability to fully explain her shift on carbon pricing, have been unconvincing. But, to its credit, the government has put powerful arguments about what is best for the nation.
Such achievements make the government's handling of asylum seekers all the more unfathomable. Its defeat in the High Court is just the latest humiliation in a saga that has provided a back-to-back series of ramshackle, experimental attempts to find a politically palatable method of dealing with irregular boat arrivals. Ms Gillard must take responsibility for this mess. The government's naive strategy started with a hasty announcement about talks with East Timor and has ended with a poorly prosecuted, legally unacceptable deal with Malaysia. Australians are entitled to ask some basic questions. Where is this government's visionary, sustainable and humanitarian solution on asylum seekers that gets beyond political fear and political narrow-mindedness? Why can't this government show the same conviction on asylum seekers that it has shown on other issues?

Labor's lacklustre performance has been exacerbated by Ms Gillard's attack on the High Court and its Chief Justice, Robert French. She described the court's judgment as ''a missed opportunity to enhance our region's response to the evil of people smuggling''. She accused Chief Justice French of making different decisions on comparable legal questions when he was on the Federal Court. These criticisms showed an appalling lack of judgment. The Judicial Conference of Australia responded appropriately yesterday by saying that ''any criticism should go to the legal merit of the court's judgment and it should not misrepresent the court's task in upholding the rule of the law''. Conference vice-president Justice Philip McMurdo said Ms Gillard's criticism of Chief Justice French was extraordinary and unfair.
In this context, the crisis facing the Gillard government is one of its own making. Ms Gillard's leadership has been compromised. However, this crisis is not, in The Saturday Age's view, necessarily terminal for the government. It is a stark, painful reminder that sound government, sound public leadership, requires exceptional skill and an ethical compass. For Labor, such leadership on asylum seekers has been sorely missing.

To recover and regain authority, the Prime Minister must begin a different conversation with Australians about asylum seekers; it has an opportunity to move away from solutions that require offshoring to a solution that would create a well-run regional processing facility. Ms Gillard must lead these discussions.
The Gillard government has, in a short time, taken bold steps to redefine Australia. It is doing this at a time of great change, in the national economy and globally. It has international standing for its economic management. The lesson from this week is about what happens when short-term political gamesmanship replaces sound policy-making. The government's future may hang in its ability to reflect deeply on its mistakes and convince voters that it can, and will, do better.

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