SYDNEY -- Even in a country without land borders, border security is a big issue, as asylum seekers -- many from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan -- have braved the Indian Ocean to reach Australia's shores.
The issue is of such importance that Prime Minister Julia Gillard used her first big policy speech Tuesday to announce a change in her Labor Party's immigration policies. Thus Gillard marked a sharp departure from the policies of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whom Gillard deposed last month.
President Obama should take notes on Gillard's rhetoric. An astute politician who sees the need to move her party toward the center, Gillard understands how to talk about the issue in a way that doesn't demonize people whose votes she may well need.
Human rights attorney Julian Burnside had challenged her to admit that at the present rate, "it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG" -- the Melbourne Cricket Ground -- "with boat people."
That's true, Gillard responded. She then took issue with Burnside's dismissal of critics of Rudd's policies as "rednecks" for showing "a fundamental disrespect that I reject."
While Obama essentially was declaring war on Arizonans and branding them as racial-profiling zealots, Gillard defended the motives of asylum critics. She objected to the politically correct notion that those anxious about immigration should be presumed to be racists, and even noted that many would-be Aussies are drawn to the continent because of the "rule of law."
The first and last time I was in Australia, August 2001, then-Prime Minister John Howard -- of the Liberal Party, which despite its L-word name is the conservative party -- refused permission for a freighter carrying 438 Afghan refugees to enter Australian waters. Howard introduced a policy called, "the Pacific solution," which called for processing of asylum seekers offshore. It was a pivotal moment that contributed to his 11-year leadership tenure, and, observers believe, discouraged illegal immigration and lethal boat expeditions.
When Rudd beat Howard in 2007, the Labor leader rejected the Pacific solution and removed barriers to would-be boat people. Over time, Rudd's "tough but humane" approach played poorly in the polls and contributed to his demise as Labor leader.
Enter Labor's new immigration policy. As a sop to the left, Gillard resumed the processing of Sri Lankan refugees, but Gillard also promised to deport Afghans who do not qualify as asylum seekers. "If people are not found to be refugees, I am committed to sending them home," the prime minister announced as she declared war on human smugglers.
"There is nothing humane about a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever-present risk of death in leaky boats captained by people-smugglers," Gillard explained -- which is what conservatives argued during the Howard years.
Gillard went so far in copying Howard's "Pacific solution" that she proposed setting up processing centers, albeit centers run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, outside of Australia -- in East Timor.
Big problem: She forgot to clear the plan with East Timor first. Thus the new plan -- notable for its lack of planning -- smells like a shoddy stunt. If she had been serious, critics note, she would have laid the groundwork for her proposal with the host country.
Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott dismissed Gillard's proposal as "a pre-election political fix." He told The Australian newspaper, "I do not believe that a re-elected Gillard government will go ahead and build a processing center in East Timor."
East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta seems to agree. Or as he said of Gillard's scheme, "What plan?"
If in charge, Abbott says that he would turn back the boats. He also advocates refusing asylum to applicants who have destroyed their documentation to discourage them from faking refugee status.
It's always fascinating to watch the same disputes that divide America as they play out in other lands. Australia has its own idiosyncratic geographic issues, but it shared the American left's conceit that conservative immigration policy was mean, while the left's immigration agenda was humane.
That's where the Obama administration is. Rudd was stuck in that gear, too. Under Gillard, the same Australian Labor Party that argued that the right's policies were inhumane bowed to politics and chose to co-opt Howard's Pacific solution. It must be frustrating for Aussie conservatives to watch the Labor prime minister embrace the humanity of their reasonable positions in her own slipshod fashion. It also is frustrating to watch Obama refuse to understand why Americans, like citizens of any affluent country, want border security.