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PM ends migration bill debate -

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PM ends migration bill debate

Reporter: Michael Brissenden

KERRY O'BRIEN: The Government has endeavoured to shift its problems out of sight with backbench
dissidents seeking to change contentious new legislation to process offshore all future asylum
seekers arriving by boat, but aimed particularly at would-be Papuan refugees. The Prime Minister
moved to shut down a potentially acrimonious debate in the Government party room today after
dissenters were singled out by some of their colleagues, but continued to demand changes to the
Prime Minister's asylum amendment bill. But the public debate in question time continued to focus
on industrial relations, with Government and Opposition continuing to trade spirited blows. And
underscoring that some debates are more welcome than others, the Government's Senate Leader, Nick
Minchin, moved this afternoon to cut the number and structure of Senate committees, a traditionally
uncomfortable forum of inquiry. Political editor Michael Brissenden reports.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN, REPORTER: In case it passed you by, today is World Refugee Day and what better
way to celebrate for this Government's hardest working minister of the moment.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Immigration and asylum is a hot topic right now, but despite the dissent within
its own ranks the Government has seized this UN-inspired public relations moment with open arms.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Today is a great reminder of just how generous
Australia is. We are always in the top three countries who accept people for resettlement from
around the world, and we always take the people most in need and some of these people would have
been waiting in camps in Africa for up to eight years. Some of the kids would never have seen
running water and power until they came to Australia. So, we're very strong on saying that, look,
we're the third largest taker of people in need of resettlement, and we will decide who comes here
and we choose to decide the people most in need and we do that with the UN and, at the moment, our
refugee and humanitarian load is probably 60-70 per cent out of Africa and I don't think anyone
could dispute that these are the people most in need.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Today's new Australians, though, have been here for some time already and none
of them arrived by boat. They arrived as part of the normal refugee program. But while the Africans
were expressing their joy in the traditional manner in the corridors of the Parliament there was
less joy and certainly no African salutations inside the joint party room meeting today. This
Government's fight with its own backbenchers is over new rules that would see all new arrivals by
boat, even those who make it to the mainland, processed offshore at Nauru. It's a fight that's
diverted internal debate now for weeks, but it seems it's still no closer to resolution.

SENATOR JUDITH TROETH, LIBERAL BACKBENCHER: Today is Tuesday. There's Wednesday and Thursday to go
and then the House of Representatives goes home. So time is getting short. But we do want to reach
a suitable conclusion and will be working until we get there.

REPORTER: So still major sticking points?

SENATOR JUDITH TROETH: I would say so, yes.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Meetings between the so-called dissidents and the minister have been continuing
on and off for some time. The Prime Minister had initially wanted to get his amendment bill passed
before the end of this session and the start of the long winter break and, perhaps more
importantly, before his meeting with the Indonesian President next Monday. Now, though, the urgency
seems to have dissipated.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: I think all I'll say about the legislation is that there are still
discussions going on and I'm a patient man, a very patient man.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Patience, though, appears to be running out among some in the party room. While
there are perhaps eight backbenchers who are now opposing the amendments, it is clear there is
overwhelming support among others for the change. The party room saw four members rise to speak
strongly in favour of the bill and against the dissidents. Ian Causley, Bob Baldwin, Alby Schultz
and Don Randall all expressed some frustration. Don Randall told the party room he wouldn't have
won his seat but for the perceptions of a tough border protection stand. Judi Moylan, one of the
dissidents, was equally passionate, prosecuting her view that the new amendment basically
overturned the hard-won agreement they had reached with the Prime Minister on this agreement last
year. At that point, as Mr Giorgio rose to speak, but the PM shut down the debate. It's a stand
that's winning them few friends in their own party, but one that perhaps not surprisingly is viewed
with considerable respect from a refugee activist outside the Parliament.

JULIAN BURNSIDE QC, REFUGEE RIGHTS ADVOCATE: It's no small thing to defy John Howard and I think
that they are to be congratulated for taking the stand they have, because it's a highly principled
stand. It's a stand which is resisting a highly unprincipled piece of legislation.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Julian Burnside is among those who has labelled this policy shift an act of
appeasement, a loaded word in politics if ever there was one but one that the Labor Party is going
to run with strongly as well.

TONY BURKE, OPPOSITION IMMIGRATION SPOKESMAN: The most embarrassing thing at the moment is that we
are sending a message to the region that we are willing to change our domestic law to try to
improve a relationship with another country.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But it is now clear that's unlikely to happen, at least immediately. No
agreement with the dissidents has been reached so there will be no bill passed this week, despite
the acrobatics of the minister.

AMANDA VANSTONE: I did indicate recently that the Government has bent over backwards in relation to
this. I'm not sure at what point I'll feel at liberty to share with you just how much.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Not enough is the short answer. The rebels say the solutions offered so far are
little more than window dressing. For the political observer, the internal fight on asylum
legislation has become a fascinating contest and one that now looks certain to continue for some
time, but it's not the only fight in town. Back on the broad political canvass, the other big
stoush has been a slugfest. Kim Beazley has really stamped out his ground on IR with his decision
to rip up AWA's and despite concerns among some on his own side and a few polls that show Labor
slipping backwards since his announcement, the Labor leader is standing firm.

KIM BEAZLEY, OPPOSITION LEADER: Will the Prime Minister guarantee that his legislation won't force
Mr Lirkus, who wants to provide decent jobs with decent conditions, to join a wages race to the
bottom just to stay competitive?

JOHN HOWARD: I can guarantee that wages will always be higher, unemployment will always be lower,
productivity will always be higher and growth will be stronger under a Liberal Government rather
than a Coalition Government.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, the lines were a bit confused but you get the picture. IR has now become
a defining political argument that whatever the latest polls show you'd have to think was far too
complicated to be digested by the voters in just a week. This is an issue that will run now until
the next election and both sides are convinced they have the winning argument and this is one
argument the Government is happy to have. Senate inquiries, though, are another matter all
together. Today, the Government's Nick Minchin nobbled that once robust form of inquiry. The number
of committees will be reduced from 16 to 10 and all of them will now be chaired by a Government
senator and presumably, one that agrees with all aspects of current Government policy.