PETER HARTCHER June 28, 2012
Moved ... the opposition spokesman on border protection, Michael Keenan, yesterday struggles to recount the stories of people who tried to rescue asylum seekers when their boat smashed into rocks off Christmas Island in 2010. Photo: Andrew Meares
THE question hanging over the Parliament last night was whether it is a place for solving problems or just a stage for noisy partisan posturing. It chose to disappoint.
Even in an escalating crisis with people drowning at sea, the parties refused to reach agreement on a mechanism for dealing with asylum seekers. Political vanity trumped problem solving.
Parliament was so alarmed at the news of another sinking boatful of asylum seekers that all parties agreed to an urgent debate on a bill to try to deal with the problem yesterday.
That was as far as it got. Although the government managed to get a vote on asylum seekers through the House last night, it is sure to fail in the Senate. Despite a blur of procedural motions and a day of intense debate, the failure is clear.
The government and opposition agreed on the principle that asylum seekers should be processed offshore, but failed to agree on exactly where.
The opposition insisted on its position that they should be sent to Nauru but not Malaysia.
The government persisted with its plan that would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia. The government did, however, renew its compromise offer to include Nauru as well. The opposition resolutely refused. And the Greens, who hold the balance of power in the Senate, opposed offshore processing anywhere.
While Parliament is often a place of disagreement, it has not always been, especially in crises.
When John Howard's government sought urgent changes to laws on asylum seekers, Kim Beazley's Labor opposition was prepared to go along with it.
When Bob Hawke's government sought dramatic solutions to problems in the economy, the John Howard opposition was prepared to go along with it.
The difference this time? The opposition will not acknowledge that the government has any right to govern, even in a crisis.
The opposition offered to compromise on a secondary issue - agreeing to an increase in the intake of immigrants under the humanitarian program - but would not budge on the key point.
This stems from the inconclusive election result in 2010 and that the government holds power through a minority arrangement. It lost some moral authority, and the opposition will not allow it to recover. And the Greens proved to be, if anything, even more obdurate than the opposition.
As a problem-solving mechanism, this Parliament last night showed that it is broken.
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