Australia's Opposition Pledges Tougher Asylum Laws As Election Race Heats Up

by
Reuters
Australia's opposition, tipped to win next month's election, promised on Friday to revive tough laws barring thousands of asylum seekers already in Australia from settling permanently in a pitch to voters concerned by immigration.

CANBERRA, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Australia's opposition, tipped to win next month's election, promised on Friday to revive tough laws barring thousands of asylum seekers already in Australia from settling permanently in a pitch to voters concerned by immigration.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whose conservatives lead Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's ruling Labor in surveys ahead of the Sept. 7 ballot, said he would also block access to court appeals for up to 30,000 asylum seekers if they are refused as refugees.

"This is our country and we determine who comes here," said Abbott in an echo of strongly nationalist border control sentiments championed by the country's last conservative leader, John Howard, before Labor swept him from power in 2007.

Abbott's conservatives and Rudd's centre-left government have been vying with each other to appear tough in promising to curb an influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Polls show immigration to be is a major issue for millions of voters.

Around 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year, prompting Rudd in July to announce a deal to send all boat arrivals to detention in Papua New Guinea for processing and eventual settlement there if they are found to be refugees.

Both sides are aware that swing seats in western Sydney, home to 2 million people, will be largely won or lost on issues of economic performance and border security.

Internal Labor polling shows that with voters worried about immigration and competition for jobs in a slowing economy forecast to grow at 2.5 percent this fiscal year, as many as 10 seats hang in the balance, including several held by ministers.

Abbott has already promised to appoint a military commander to take charge of asylum issues in an operation dubbed "sovereign borders". He said if he won power, the 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia would only receive temporary protection visas if they are found to be refugees. That would mean they could be sent to their home country in the future.

 

COURT CHALLENGES

Abbott's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, acknowledged the policy, criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups, could be challenged in the courts. Tougher immigration laws have already been subject to several legal setbacks.

Australia's stance contrasts with moves by key ally the United States to offer a pathway to citizenship for many of its 11 million illegal immigrants, although many European countries are also hardening immigration rules amid financial woes.

Norway, which holds elections two days after Australia, is debating a crackdown on immigration, running at about 40,000 newcomers a year in a country of 5 million, far smaller than Australia's 23 million.

Australia's influential Greens Party, which wields the balance of power in the Senate upper house, said both major parties were offering policies bound to fail, with instability rising in source countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, pushing international refugee numbers to near a 20-year high.

More than 45.2 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide last year, the highest number since 1994, according to the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees.

"There is no national emergency, there is a humanitarian emergency," Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told reporters. "This is the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott trashing Australia's international reputation and our spirit as a nation of standing up for a fair go."

Opinion polls show Abbott's conservative Liberal-National Party coalition holding a 52 percent to 48 lead, which will be difficult for Rudd's government to pull back in the three remaining weeks of the campaign.