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New Australia PM says boatpeople next priority

[AFP, Saturday, 3 July 2010 09:37 No Comment]

XUMM1T6D6Q New Australian leader Julia Gillard vowed Saturday to provide "solutions not slogans" on the sensitive issue of boatpeople as she works to shore up her position ahead of looming elections.

Gillard secured her first policy victory Friday by sealing a compromise with the powerful mining industry on a proposed profits tax, just one week after ousting predecessor Kevin Rudd in a bloodless party-room coup.

Rudd’s divisive two-month war with the key resources export sector delivered a fatal blow to his standing in the opinion polls, prompting the ruling centre-left Labor party to dump him in favour of Gillard, his deputy.

The former lawyer moved swiftly to end the impasse, and described as a "breakthrough" her compromise with the miners, which included slashing the headline rate from 40 to 30 percent and doubling the threshold to 12 percent.

She said her attention was now focused on the steady stream of asylum-seeker boats, and promised to make an announcement on the issue this week.

"This is an area where you can have a slogan, and you can beat your chest, and people do that for political advantage," Gillard told reporters on Saturday.

"I?m not going to offer a slogan. And I?m going to say to people this is a complex problem. There is no simple fix. Anybody who pretends to you that a slogan and a bit of chest-beating is going to fix it simply isn?t telling the truth."

Immigration is a sensitive issue in Australia, where boatloads of refugees arrive after perilous voyages from Asia, often in rickety fishing vessels, as they escape countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Rudd suspended claims for asylum from Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six as a temporary solution, and the Sri Lankan freeze is due for review this week, in Gillard’s first major policy challenge on the issue.

"I?ve got some decisions to make with a deadline of the 8th of July, and I?ll have something more to say in coming days," she said.

"But what I have to say will be truthful, and it will be about effective measures, not chest-beating."

Now in opposition, the conservatives have promised a return to their hardline "Pacific Solution" policy of turning back boats and detaining refugees offshore while their claims are processed.

But the prime minister said turning boats away was impractical and carried unacceptable risks.

"The reality is that — and this has been experienced by this nation before — that if we seek to turn boats around, often the boats are disabled, and then there is a question of loss of life at sea," she said.

Speculation is mounting that Gillard, Australia’s first female leader, will call an election within weeks to capitalise on her popularity, certain to have received a boost from her intervention in the mining row.

But she said "we?ve got some decisions, some governing to do" and would promise only that an election would be held "during the second half of the year, in the timeframe in which its due".

"On the day I became prime minister I said I thought there were a series of issues where we needed to get back on track. The single biggest and most pressing was dealing with this question of the (mining) tax," she said.

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