Press "Enter" to skip to content

Major parties ‘hysterical’ on asylum deals

A further 49 asylum seekers have been discovered hiding from border protection officers under a false deck of a vessel intercepted by the navy off Christmas Island.


The discovery what not made until after the boat was taken to the island and inspected.

An initial count by officers early on Friday turned up 60 passengers and three crew.

But Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said further scrutiny revealed a deck below the main deck carrying 49 asylum seekers and a fourth crew member, taking the total on board to 113.

“I have been advised by Border Protection Command that this deck resulted in the concealment of a significant number of people,” Mr O’Connor said on Friday in a statement.

“The passengers have now arrived at Christmas Island, where they will undergo initial checks and their reasons for travel will be established.”

The 109 passengers and four crew add to those on another boat found by HMAS Pirie about midnight on Thursday in distress in international waters about 100 nautical miles north of the island.

That vessel was carrying 66 passengers and two crew, taking the total being transferred to Christmas Island to 181.

The arrival of the two boats was followed by a political blame game, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott faced off over the border protection issue.

Labor’s supporters in government described the reaction as hysterical and a disgrace, coming after a parliament wrapped up after a two-week break during which the government presented legislation to put beyond legal doubt its ability to make offshore processing arrangements with other countries such as Malaysia.

But the bill is unlikely to pass, as the coalition and the Greens oppose the changes to the Migration Act, making its defeat when parliament resumes next month almost certain.

“If Mr Abbott ends the ability of government to process offshore then he must also take the responsibility for the consequences that that lack of resolve will send to people smugglers,” Ms Gillard told reporters in Canberra.

“If they see no resolve then that means we will see more boats, and Mr Abbott will have to take the responsibility.”

Mr Abbott told reporters in Melbourne he was happy to support the laws if the government accepted his amendment to only do deals with UN refugee convention signatories – which would rule out the Malaysia deal but rule in Nauru.

“I accept that this is a pretty desperate prime minister who has lost control of our borders,” Mr Abbott said.

Independent MP Tony Windsor, who help delivered minority government to Labor, told AAP on Friday both parties should sit down with crossbenchers and come to an agreement. “I think it’s been a disgrace,” Mr Windsor said of the debate.

“Labor support what they used to oppose … and the `humanitarian crusaders’ are the coalition, who are the purveyors of psychosis in terms of Nauru.”

Operating under the Howard government, Nauru was heavily criticised by Labor, the Greens and the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists over the high level of psychiatric illness among detainees.

Greens leader Bob Brown rejected coalition calls for parliament to be recalled to debate the laws.

“Abbott and (immigration spokesman Scott) Morrison want to recall parliament to prosecute a quarrel. It’s a very low point in Australian politics,” Senator Brown said.

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said both major parties had become “hysterical”.

“These are a few dozen desperate people seeking our protection – they are hardly a national security risk,” she said.

Mr Windsor said it was possible the laws could at least pass the lower house if an amendment from fellow independent Rob Oakeshott was accepted by the government.

Mr Oakeshott wants the laws to enshrine the regional agreement on refugees reached in Bali in March.

Mr O’Connor said on Friday it was inevitable there would be more boats arrivals in the medium term.