There was a lot of predictability in the responses to yesterday’s Gillard speech and policy proposals on asylum seekers, at least as far as the broader commentariat were concerned – the Labor leaners loved it,  the Green left saw dog-whistles, while the wingnuts created yet another acute shortage of tin foil in supermarkets around the nation.

The non-policy aspects of the PM’s speech are to be commended – it was a far more pleasant kind of politics than the grubby stroking of the dark underbelly of the electorate that Howard pursued in 2001 and which some of us were half expecting to re-emerge yesterday. For the first time in a long time we had a Prime Minister that spoke about the reality of the numbers when it comes to asylum seekers arriving by boat, a political leader that treated the public like adults and sought to remove some of the heat from the issue – although not quite managing to fully substitute that heat with equal parts light.

The person who really nailed it was Matt Franklin in The Oz.

Critics can easily argue that her lack of detail exposes the policy as little more than a political fix – a thought bubble not backed by policy development.

It is clear that Gillard’s proposals are based on her own views about the best way forward on border protection.

It is equally clear that her policy-development process has gone no further than telephoning the leaders of Timor, New Zealand and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, to see whether they agreed.

She cannot say how much it will cost, exactly where she will build her Timorese refugee processing centre, who will run it or whether any other nations will be involved. Given she has been Prime Minister less than a fortnight, that’s understandable at the practical level. But if her idea is to fly in a political sense, she must put flesh on the bones – quickly.

What we actually have is a blank page with a policy headline and it’s why refugee advocates including the Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International and even Julian Burnside, have given the policy direction somewhere between a qualified and very qualified tick.

One of the most important long standing goals of most refugee organisations in Australia  -and something that often appears to fly right over the head of many on the politically activist left in this debate – is for the creation of a well resourced, properly administered regional refugee processing centre that has UNHCR participation, regional government cooperation, a fair, efficient and and consistent refugee status determination process, clearly defined legal rights for appeal and, most importantly, a well functioning resettlement program.

It is why the Pacific Solution was canned by refugee organisations – for the Pacific Solution was exactly none of these things. It’s also why comparisons between the Pacific Solution and some possible East Timor solution are pretty superficial and lazy.

Such a regional processing centre, if done right, would carry with it a number of not insubstantial benefits. Firstly – and most obviously – it would reduce the number of people that drown on the voyage to Australia by removing the need for the open water trip toward the Australian mainland or one of our northern islands.

At a domestic level – it stops grubby politics hiding under the petticoat of the queue jumping argument, as we’ll actually create some kind of queue.

But the big problems come with the funding arrangements, the hosting arrangements, the jurisdictional issues involved with any centre on Timor (particularly legal), the nature of the burden it could place on East Timor development – let alone the two gigantic elephants in the room – the effective Malaysian open door policy, allowing that country to be used as a node for uncontrolled people movement, and Indonesia having more important things to do with their scarce resources than spend them on unauthorised people flows that are mostly “other peoples problems”

So, donning your policy wonk hats – what would a proper regional processing solution based in East Timor look like? What would Australia have to do to make it work? How would we overcome the fairly large amount of problems that it would throw up? Could it even be made to be a beneficial development for East Timor? And would or should this be just the first part of a larger policy goal on this area over a longer time frame?

If you want to write something more substantial than a comment, say on your blog, drop a link in the comments and we’ll make a running link list. I was actually going to ignore this issue – waiting for the inevitable polling data to come out on it – but a mate of mine that works in an organisation that deals with these issues, asked if we could do something like this as they’re interested in the responses to see if anything new and interesting might pop up.  Especially as Gillard has now opened the door on something that they believe could become one of the key policy goals they’ve been pursuing for years. Could, if they get the detail right.


Joshua Gans suggests something that you probably won’t have heard of before.

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