Houston confident of finding asylum policy ‘high ground’

Houston confident of finding asylum policy ‘high ground’

Mark Colvin, ABCUpdated June 30, 2012, 3:29 am

Former Defence Force chief Angus Houston says he is “under no illusions” as to how challenging his task will be to navigate a way through the border protection policy impasse.

On Thursday the Senate struck down a bill from independent MP Rob Oakeshott which tried to restore the Government’s ability to process asylum seekers offshore.

In response, Prime Minister Julia Gillard formed a three-member expert panel to reassess Australia’s approach to border protection issues.

It is the latest bid to end the political stalemate that has gripped Parliament since two asylum seeker boats capsized killing almost 100 people.

Air Chief Marshal Houston, along with former head of Foreign Affairs and Trade Michael L’Estrange and immigration lawyer Paris Aristotle, have been given six weeks to come up with a solution to the current deadlock – preferably one which will be acceptable to the Parliament.

Air Chief Marshal Houston has told the ABC’s PM program that he believes the panel will be able to navigate through the tough policy issue.

“I think we know where the high ground is and we will work that in the way that enables us to come up with the best options that we can think of after we’ve gone through all the material that’s available to us,” he said.

But he says his is aware the task will be challenging.

“I’m under no illusions. This is going to be a very challenging and very difficult task and I think that view is shared certainly by Michael L’Estrange, who I’ve had quite a bit of discussion with,” he said.

The Coalition has already vowed to stick to its own border protection policy regardless of the panel’s findings, but Air Chief Marshal Houston does not think that will restrict his job.

“I don’t think my hands are tied. One of the things that’s been emphasised by the Prime Minister is that we will provide independent advice. It won’t be partisan in any way,” he said.

“But clearly we will look at all of the issues, we’ll look at all of the policy options and we will provide independent advice.”

New ‘opportunity’

The former Defence Force chief says his experience with the issues from a Defence point of view will bring something to the table.

“As the chief of Defence Force I was involved in a number of the committees that considered some of these difficult issues for a considerable period of time. I have had that experience,” he said.

“But I think what we’re looking at here is an opportunity; I’ve been away from it for 12 months, Michael L’Estrange has been away from those closer to this for a little more bit more than that and I think we have an opportunity to go back and perhaps start from a lower level and work through the policy.”

Air Chief Marshal Houston would not be drawn on his opinion of the Opposition’s policy to tow back boats to Indonesia, which has been criticised as being impractical.

“I’m not going to make any prejudgments at this stage. It would be very inappropriate of me to say ‘well I think this, I think that’ and so forth,” he said.

“We are going to be looking at all of the issues; all of the options and, in the fullness of time, the views of the panel will become very clear and very evident.”

He says the issue of border protection is complex and he does not expect to be able to find a quick fix.

“There is no magic bullet here and we will have to work through [the issues] and hopefully we’ll be able to provide constructive input into the resolution of the very difficult issues in a context which is extremely challenging,” he said.

Boat disasters

Air Chief Marshal Houston says he is yet to sit down with the other panellists to discuss how to tackle the task they have been given.

“I think it’s important that we give it our best shot; 500 people dying at sea attempting to get to Australia is 500 too many. And I feel that very personally,” he said.

“I’ve been involved in a couple of the disasters that involved asylum seekers when I was the CDF and I’d just like to see those risks eliminated.

“We’ll give it our best shot to try and achieve an outcome where we can dissuade people jumping into unseaworthy boats to come to Australia.”

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has described the members of the expert panel as people of “great distinction” but says his party already has a boarder protection policy.

He has criticised the Government for outsourcing responsibility for its policy to the panel.

Air Chief Marshal Houston disagrees.

“I think the Government has to use every option available to it to resolve these difficult issues,” he said.

“What we bring to this is independence. We’re not partisan and we can make a considered decision on the advice that we will provide to government at the end of the process.”

“And hopefully – I know it’s going to be difficult and I don’t want to raise any expectations – but hopefully we will be able to make the positive and constructive contribution in the very difficult, intractable area.”

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