PM still backs Aussie plan of asylum seeker centre

BY MARTIN KAY
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2010

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Prime Minister John Key is still backing a proposed international detention centre for asylum seekers, despite Australian plans to base it in East Timor being in tatters.

East Timor's parliament has voted unanimously against Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal to locate the centre in the struggling island state, delivering a potentially fatal blow to her plans just a week after they were announced.

Ms Gillard played down the vote yesterday, noting that only 34 of Timor's 65 MPs were present.

She said the East Timor Government had confirmed it was still keen to discuss the plan, though President Jose Ramos-Horta has publicly given only very guarded agreement. He has also made clear the decision lies with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who Ms Gillard did not consult before announcing East Timor's backing last week.

A spokesman for Mr Key, who was sounded out about the plan in a 10-minute phone call from Ms Gillard while on an official trip to Asia, said he would continue discussions despite the East Timor vote.

"As we said last week, we are happy to have discussions with the Australians on the idea of a regional processing centre, but Mr Key has not spoken further with Julia Gillard on this issue."

Ms Gillard has proposed the centre as a solution to Australia's boat people problem, claiming people- smugglers would be deterred from targeting its shores if they knew they would be sent to East Timor.

She wants New Zealand backing, but has also made it clear that New Zealand would be expected to take refugees declared as genuine after being processed at the centre.

Mr Key has backed the plan on the grounds that New Zealand will sooner or later be targeted by people- smugglers as their operations become more sophisticated.

But Greens immigration spokesman Keith Locke said Mr Key should withdraw his support following the Timorese vote.

"It's time for New Zealand to pull the plug on this half-baked plan ... It was never more than a pre-election gimmick by the new Australian prime minister."

Labour leader Phil Goff said the East Timor vote was no surprise, as the tiny country had just finished dealing with 100,000 internally displaced people of its own.

Mr Key had been sucked into backing a policy aimed at helping Ms Gillard win a looming election in which asylum seekers would be a major concern, and should drop his support, he said.

"This is an issue for Australia. New Zealand does not need to be part of establishing a detention centre, where it should be, funding it or giving priority to taking refugees from it. I don't see any benefit to New Zealand in doing any of those things."

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