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Could Australia become another island in the Indonesian archipelago?

Embrace for impactAustralia is in danger of becoming one of the many thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

I'm not talking about some kind of a reverse continental drift or a conspiracy theory out of the One Nation policy handbook.

It's all about the federal government's attitude to asylum seekers.

Prime Minister John Howard has flagged additions to his Pacific Solution policy, which now are likely to go to parliament in August after the winter recess.

The policy change was triggered by the diplomatic implosion over the immigration department's decision to grant temporary protection to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers who arrived by boat earlier this year.

Indonesia withdrew its ambassador over the decision and many political figures, from the president down, expressed outrage and made threats.

It was claimed the decision to grant a handful of visas was because of the Australian government's support for West Papuan independence.

Mr Howard has travelled to Indonesia to mend the rift, armed with proposed legislation to ensure that any asylum seekers arriving by boat on the Australian mainland will be processed offshore and, if found to have a legitimate claim, given protection preferably in a third country.

The prime minister has argued the policy, which extends the already controversial Pacific Solution well beyond its original form, is in Australia's national interest and is all about protecting our borders, as well as stopping refugee queue-jumping.

But Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone gave the game away when she said in an interview it would be folly to ignore our relations with Indonesia in making such a decision.

While Mr Howard has now agreed to a raft of amendments to the laws, after a backbench revolt, the central thrust of the legislation remains in place.

The diplomatic intention behind the laws - appeasing our northern neighbour - also remains.

Australia played a key role in securing the freedom and independence of East Timor after years of repression and bloodshed under Indonesian rule - a role that is continuing in the wake of fresh, internal political tensions.

Support for East Timor's independence has not gone down well in some Indonesian political circles, but few in the Australian and global communities would argue that the move was anything other than morally right (even if sloppily executed).

Now, just the suggestion that the government could support West Papuan independence has the government kowtowing to Indonesia.

Mr Howard and Senator Vanstone have strongly argued that the decision to grant the visas was not about support for West Papuan freedom from Indonesia - which the government does not support - but purely and simply an assessment of the asylum seekers' claim based on its merits.

But the statements have not been enough - hence the Bill in Mr Howard's back pocket when he flies to Jakarta.

There are three problems with this approach. One, is that West Papua is in crisis. Independence activists are being killed and repressed by Indonesian authorities, with and without the government's aid.

A solution is needed, either through independence and/or a long-term plan to ensure sustainable economic development and basic freedoms and stamp out corruption and violence.

The second is that Australia is in serious danger of surrendering its sovereignty by allowing another country to force its hand on policy matters, such as migration.

The third is that the Pacific Solution violates Australia's international obligations to deal with people who arrive on our shores fairly and decently, on our own soil, using our own resources and open to scrutiny from our own legal and oversight systems.

Mr Howard admitted to parliament that the only way Australia's legal system could apply to offshore processing centres is if the case relates to an Australian official involved in misconduct or other breach of law. Otherwise the local law of the land would apply.

The prime minister is hoping to ride another Tampa-style wave to the next election.

But disgruntled backbenchers, Labor members and the minor parties may have something to say about that.



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Existing comments

Rather one-sided. West Papua if given independence would like East Timor, PNG and other states to our North quickly deteriorate to "failed state" status. The problem needing a soluton is how to stop this happening.

Peter Bashford | 27 June 2006  

Whether West Papua can survive as an Independent state is a secondary issue. What we must NOT ignore are the (proven to be legitimate) claims of torture & persecution by the 43 asylum seekers who got here by boat. If we applied your concerns, Peter Bashford, would we have ignored calls for asylum from East Timorese on the grounds that their country could not manage Independence?

Kate Maclurcan | 04 July 2006  

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