Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Thursday urged politicians to “look into their conscience” as a bill to allow boat-people to be sent offshore for processing was debated in the Senate.
The bill passed the House of Representatives, or lower house, on Wednesday after an angry and emotional debate sparked by another crowded asylum seeker boat sinking off the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Some 130 people were rescued, one body was recovered and three people went down with the vessel. The incident came just days after another boat capsized, with 110 people saved but an estimated 90 killed.
“I am calling on each and every senator to look into their conscience, to think deeply about this,” Gillard said, adding that if the bill did not pass, there would be no effective message of deterrence to people-smugglers.
“What it will mean is people will get on boats,” she said in a radio interview.
“What we know is if people get on boats, unfortunately, tragically, awfully, some get into trouble and people lose their lives.”
But the bill is unlikely to succeed with the conservative opposition and the Australian Greens vowing to block it, sparking scathing criticism from the media.
“Paralysis in Parliament,” the Sydney Morning Herald said in a front-page headline.
“The Australian parliament is failing us. It is putting politicking ahead of human life,” it said.
The Australian newspaper said in an editorial that the expected Senate failure would lead to more inaction.
“Around the nation there will be much stunned silence,” it said.
Gillard’s fragile Labor coalition government supports the private member’s bill from independent MP Rob Oakeshott which is attempting to revive a deal clinched last year to send 800 boat-people to Malaysia.
In exchange, Canberra would take 4,000 of that country’s refugees.
The government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition, amid concerns Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.
The Oakeshott bill, seen as a compromise, would allow an immigration minister to designate any nation as an “offshore assessment country” if it was party to the Bali Process — a framework for dealing with asylum seekers involving more than 40 countries.
As a sweetener, Gillard offered to re-open a detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru if the opposition agreed to vote for the bill, which would allow processing in Malaysia
But opposition leader Tony Abbott, who supports processing on Nauru and turning boats back when possible, said he would never back the Malaysia option.
The Greens, on whom Gillard relies for her majority, are opposed to any offshore processing.
They said Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake should be increased while working more closely with Indonesia, where many of the rickety boats originate.
“These are the lives of the people we are playing with,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told the Senate.
“When people arrive on your doorstep you have an obligation to help them.”