Prime Minister Julia Gillard has scoffed at Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s plan to personally make the call to turn asylum seeker boats around, describing it as a “nonsense” that Australians will see through.
Mr Abbott has revealed he would make the final decision whether to turn back boats carrying refugees, after having previously said it would be left to the relevant navy commanders.
Ms Gillard, who has abandoned former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2007 pledge to turn the boats around, maintains it is an unworkable strategy that would risk lives.
“What Mr Abbott wants that commander to do is to take their eyes off the safety of their crew, take their eyes off the ocean, take their eyes off people smugglers and go inside the cabin and give him a call,” Ms Gillard said on Monday.
“Presumably, from the safety of Kirribilli as he watches luxury yachts go by, Mr Abbott is going to provide some advice to that commander about how to stop the boats.”
“This is a nonsense and every Australian will see through it.”
The comments were made during a speech at the official launch of the Labor election campaign in Brisbane.
Earlier, Mr Abbott confirmed he would personally make the decision on asylum seeker boats, despite having said in July that the decision would be left to navy commanders.
“In the end it would fall to the prime minister to make this kind of a call,” Mr Abbott told ABC Radio on Monday morning.
“But you do it based on the advice of the naval commanders on the spot.
“Obviously, as in the past, you’d have to have an understanding with the other country, most likely Indonesia, that they would accept the boats.”
Mr Abbott said the Howard government successfully turned boats around on seven occasions and “virtually stopped” the flow of boats within three months.
“That’s essentially the timeline that John Howard took (and) I think in three months we will make a big difference,” he said.
Fisheries Minister Tony Burke said earlier this month that the Australian Defence Force’s northern command – NORCOM – had advised that turning the boats around would not work.
Mr Burke, who was Labor’s immigration spokesman in 2007 when Mr Rudd made the pledge, said Labor abandoned the policy shortly after being elected.
“At that point (before the 2007 election) we didn’t have the advice we have now, which the coalition had when they were in government and we got as soon as we came in, which was first of all, if you try and turn a boat back there is no country that will accept them,” he said.
Former prime minister John Howard also weighed into the debate on Monday, saying Ms Gillard’s plan for a regional refugee processing hub in East Timor would never be realised.
The opposition instead wants to reopen a detention centre on Nauru, used by the Howard government as part of the Pacific Solution.
Mr Howard said he had briefly contemplated East Timor while looking for somewhere to process refugees in 2001, when Australia’s northern neighbour was still under United Nations administration.
Even though East Timor now was independent, there was still “no hope” the scheme would happen, Mr Howard said.
“When Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was asked about it he said, `What plan?'” Mr Howard said in Perth on Monday.
“There’s no way East Timor can have a processing centre when the domestic politics of that country would, under no circumstances, have it.
“There’s not a hope and (the Australian government) know that.”