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09CANBERRA398 2009-04-21 06:19:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Canberra
Cable title:  

BORDER PROTECTION CONTINUES TO DOMINATE POLITICAL

Tags:   AS PHUM PREF PREL 
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1. (SBU) Summary: Border protection is dominating the
political debate this week as investigations into last
Thursday's boat explosion continue (Ref A). The Opposition
maintains there is a link between the government's
immigration policies and the increased flow of asylum
seekers, while the government continues to attribute this to
"push factors" in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and
Sri Lanka. The Opposition has called for the government to
consider re-introducing Temporary Protection Visas, and is
inferring the government is covering up the details of the
explosion. The government will not speculate on the cause of
the explosion until investigations are completed. Australia
and Indonesia have agreed to closer co-operation in order to
stop the flow of boat people to Australia. As was the case
under the previous government, this issue has become a part
of the "culture war" between Left and Right political
commentators and newspapers. So far, this issue has not
affected the government's continuing strong position in the
polls. End summary.

CLAIMS EXPLOSION WAS AN ACCIDENT



2. (U) Shortly after early reports of the incident, Western
Australian Premier Colin Barnett claimed that the asylum
seekers had deliberately doused their boat with gasoline
which had either exploded accidentally, or had been
deliberately lit. The claim could not be confirmed and
Australia's Border Protection Commander, Rear Admiral Allan
du Toit declined to comment on the Premier's claim, saying
that it was too early to determine the cause of the
explosion, adding that Australian military personnel were on
board the vessel at the time of the accident. Australian Navy
personnel had intercepted and boarded the boat April 15 in
the Indian Ocean, and was under escort to Christmas Island, a
remote Australian territory used for government processing of
refugee applicants. Western Australian police believed that
the explosion may have originated in the engine room. Federal
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus questioned the source of
Premier Barnett's information commenting that it was too
early to say whether the explosion was accidental or
deliberate.



3. (U) The death toll from the explosion has risen to five
with two missing asylum seekers now presumed dead. Around 40
survivors are in hospitals in Perth, Brisbane and Darwin.
Most are recovering, but four are in induced comas and some
have developed serious blood infections. Six victims being
treated in Perth are expected to be released from hospital
this week into the care of immigration officials. The
government will not speculate on the cause of the explosion
until an inquiry, headed by the Northern Territory police, is
completed. This may take months. However, some media outlets
reported that "senior government sources" confirmed asylum
seekers doused the deck of the boat with petrol - a threat to
force the Navy to bring them to Australia - but that the
explosion was an accident. The Murdoch press reported that
the government received intelligence briefings from the
Australian Federal Police warning that its border protection
laws were encouraging people smuggling. Defence has released
a 25 second video showing the boat burning, and six persons
waiting to be rescued by a crew in a rubber dinghy. The
Northern Territory Coroner found the provisional cause of
death for three asylum seekers was drowning.

THE POLITICS



4. (U) On April 19, Prime Minister Rudd spoke to Indonesian
Q4. (U) On April 19, Prime Minister Rudd spoke to Indonesian
president Yudhoyono about the flow of asylum seekers.
According to Rudd's office, they agreed that "push factors"
(such as conflicts in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan,
and global recession) was the main cause behind increased
flow of asylum seekers; and that Yudhoyono was willing to
strengthen cooperation between Indonesian and Australian
authorities. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull maintains
that "there is no question that our immigration laws are more
receptive and more accommodating for people who arrive by
boat". He said Temporary Protection Visas were an effective
deterrent under the Howard government, and called on the Rudd
government to consider re-introducing them. Turnbull says the
government has opened itself to accusations of a "cover up"
by not releasing information about the explosion, and claims
the "government has known the facts for some time".
Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans said: "Australians
thought it had gone too far under John Howard, we were
punishing and vilifying refugees, we've ended that."

CANBERRA 00000398 002 OF 002


Referring to the Howard government's "children overboard
affair" in 2001, the government said it was prudent to wait
for the outcome of the investigation before speculating on
the cause of the explosion. The Murdoch tabloids - which
appeal to Rudd's "working families" in the outer suburbs -
have called for stronger border protection policies, while
the more left-leaning Fairfax papers - argue against any
return to Howard government policies.

NO SHIFT IN POLLS



5. (U) A Newspoll conducted 17-19 April and published on
April 21 showed the Rudd government maintaining its 58/42
lead over the Opposition; virtually no change to Rudd's high
approval rating; and virtually no change to Rudd's massive
lead over Turnbull as preferred Prime Minister. Thirty-seven
percent believed the government was doing a good job managing
asylum seekers with 40 percent taking the opposite view.
Fifty-seven percent believed tighter immigration laws would
make no difference to the number of asylum seekers seeking to
enter Australia.

LIFELINE FOR DESPERATE TURNBULL



6. (SBU) Coment: This was an issue that worked for Howard in


2001. It drove a wedge between the ALP's "working families"
and its middle-class Left constituencies. However, working
against Turnbull is that national security as a major issue
has declined in relation to economic concerns, and the ALP
has the resources of government to demonstrate it is working
to address the problem. Turnbull, a social Liberal, doesn't
appear comfortable pursuing this issue, but is way behind in
the polls and needs an issue to try to erode Rudd's
formidable poll numbers. End Comment.