Australia defends `difficult` asylum-seeker plan

Australia seeks to create a processing centre for boatpeople in East Timor.

Sydney: Australia on Sunday defended plans for a regional asylum-seeker centre which left new Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a foreign-policy muddle just a fortnight after taking office.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australia would hold talks with East Timor and Indonesia this week over the centre, rejecting criticism that Gillard did not consult properly before announcing the policy.

"No one is underestimating or under-appreciating just how difficult an exercise this is," Smith told public broadcaster ABC.

"And people who expect that you can announce it with a bow-tie on top, all locked up on day one, frankly don`t appreciate the reality of a very difficult issue for all of the countries in the region, not just Australia."

Smith said he would discuss the processing centre in Indonesia this week and that officials would start a "detailed discussion" with aid-dependent East Timor, where reaction to the plan has been mixed.

Australia`s first woman leader, in her first foreign policy speech as polls loom, said she was in talks with East Timor about housing poor Asian migrants who arrive off northern Australia in rickety people-smuggling boats.

However, she later said Timor was only "one possibility" for the centre, raising questions about its location and how much planning had gone into the proposal.

Gillard was also criticised for raising the plan with East Timor`s President Jose Ramos-Horta rather than the more powerful Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and for not consulting Indonesia, a major transit point.

She also discussed the idea with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who said they spoke the day before her speech.

Smith said the government`s actions had been "entirely appropriate", adding that he would discuss the matter with Indonesia`s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa during a visit this week.

"There`s been very informal discussions at lower levels over a period about whether a regional processing centre might be appropriate," he said.

"We`ve decided to raise the matter now formally, to take the cudgels up. It`s the first time we`ve seen a regional leader say let`s see if we can get this effected."

Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd in a surprise leadership challenge last month, and then quickly defused a lingering mining tax row by striking a compromise deal, in an apparent effort to clear the decks for early elections.

But she immediately ran into trouble over the long-running immigration issue, which arouses strong passions in voters. On Friday, she narrowly avoided being hit by an egg hurled by an angry protester.

Both Gillard`s ruling Labor Party and the conservative Liberals have unveiled tough policies on asylum-seekers, with opposition leader Tony Abbott promising a return to the "Pacific Solution" of mandatory detention abroad.

The opposition has also called for a crackdown on the "massive explosion" of foreign students, including many from Asia, who seek permanent residency.

Greens leader Bob Brown said the debate reminded him of anti-immigration firebrand Pauline Hanson, especially after Abbott referred to a "peaceful invasion" of asylum-seekers.

"That`s not dog-whistling, that`s plain xenophobia," he said. "You sometimes think that Pauline Hanson hasn`t gone at all."

Bureau Report

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