Julia Gillard’s ascent to the top job in Australia will face its first major policy test in the next fortnight, as she will have to outline her stance on the claims of asylum seekers – always an explosive political topic across the Tasman. Somehow, Kevin Rudd had become identified with a ‘soft line’ on asylum seekers and refugees – despite the fact that his government had already frozen the asylum claims from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, on the grounds that conditions were improving in both countries (!) and therefore asylum was not warranted.
In a couple of weeks, the freeze placed on Sri Lankan claims comes to an end, and the omens are not good on Gillard’s intentions, judging by this exchange a couple of days ago between Gillard and ABC interviewer Kerry O’Brien:
Kerry O’Brien: But does that mean that you are prepared to change policy or not?….
Julia Gillard: Well Kerry, I’m going to explain and we of course we deal with changing circumstances. We have got some decisions to make about potentially changing country circumstances in relation to Sri Lanka for example.:
That “ potentially changing country circumstances” phrase looks like a code for saying things are getting better now, and so we can send the asylum seekers home.. If Gillard goes down that track – and the likes of author Thomas Keneally are urging her not to she will be on a collision course with where the European Union is headed. This week, the EU is on the brink of imposing trade sanctions on the Sri Lankan government for its ongoing human rights abuses, according to this report in the Hindustan Times:
The European Union’s executive wrote to Colombo on June 17, requesting the government fully comply with and implement provisions of international human rights agreements and the United Nations convention against torture.
For more than a year Sri Lanka has defied Western pressure over accountability for potential war crimes and human rights violations in the last stages of its quarter-century war with the separatist Tamil Tigers, which it won in May 2009. As the July 1 reply deadline looms, the European Union has warned that Sri Lanka risks losing access from Aug. 15 to its biggest export market if it fails to comply…
Gillard seems likely to brush aside such concerns – if only to avoid handing her conservative opponent Tony Abbott the kind of “soft on immigration” weapon that John Howard used so effectively to win Aussie elections in the past. While she has also promised there will be no ‘lurch to the right’ on asylum claims for political expedience, it may come down to one’s definition of a “lurch”. Certainly, there is political room for her to make a distinction between the situation in Sri Lanka and the one in Afghanistan – if she wants to concoct a rationale for sending the Sri Lankans home. At the rate at which Australian soldiers have been dying in Afghanistan, it would be far harder to argue that conditions are going so swimmingly under the Karzai regime, such that all asylum concerns can be ignored.
On at least one other issue – opposing gay marriage – Gillard is making no break with the past. She opposes it.
Speaking today, she told the Austereo show that Labor policy on the issue would remain the same while she was prime minister.
She said: “We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman, but we have as a government taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples.”
She said this was also her personal view.Ms Gillard replaces Kevin Rudd as prime minister, who was also against gay marriage. Gay rights advocates point to research which shows 60 per cent of the Australian public support equal marriage rights.
On this issue, Gillard’s colleagues happen to include Anthony Albanese, one of the Labour Party’s leading advocates for gay rights and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, who has stated publicly she is a lesbian. On a more positive note, Gillard has also confirmed that she will not be playing the religion card:
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was a regular at Canberra church services and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is known as a devout Catholic.
In contrast, Ms Gillard says that while she greatly respects other people’s religious views, she does not believe in God….”I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel,” she said. “I am what I am and people will judge that.
“For people of faith, I think the greatest compliment I could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine. I grew up in the Christian church, a Christian background. I won prizes for catechism, for being able to remember Bible verses. I am steeped in that tradition, but I’ve made decisions in my adult life about my own views.”
No doubt many Australians will be re-assured that Gillard actions will not be influenced by an invisible Deity, and that she is not prepared to go through the motions of a belief system. On yet another front however, some Australians are expressing concern that her foreign policy decisions could be influenced by far more tangible factors – such as the job offer that her partner Tim Mathieson accepted late last year with a pro-Israel lobby called the Australia Israel Leadership forum headed by Albert Dadon. Gillard, when quizzed on this, has said she will not be influenced by her partner’s ties, and that her own feelings about Israel are well known. As indeed they are:
In June 2009, she and Mr Mathieson had led a group of Australian politicians including the Liberals Christopher Pyne and Peter Costello, in Jerusalem at the first Australia Israel Leadership Forum. At a second forum in December 2009, also addressed by Kevin Rudd, she acknowledged Mr Dadon and his wife for their support of the forum…..
A former Australian ambassador to Israel, Ross Burns, on Monday accused Ms Gillard of being silent on the ”excesses” of Israel and questioned why Mr Mathieson had been given the job by Mr Dadon.
Like most Australians, New Zealanders are just getting to know Julia Gillard.
Some credit is due to Justice Minister Simon Power for finally backing down (right at the last minute) on his plan to strip defendants of their day in court, and their right to personally confront their accusers. The bigger question is how someone as intelligent as Power could ever have got himself into this situation in the first place, where he was willing to jettison such a basic right – apparently, just because the video technology was available to let him do so.
On this and other fronts – such as the search and surveillance legislation – Power looks to be on a personal odyssey to change whatever basic rights that he and his mates at the Law Commission think is a good idea at the time. The dabbling by Power with elements of European inquisitorial system of justice is another current example. The lack of any meaningful checks and balances on this rule-by-whim is absolutely hair-raising.