East Timor has delivered a setback to Julia Gillard’s plans to set up quickly an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers.
A reduced sitting of East Timor’s parliament on Monday rejected the Australian proposal to locate a regional processing centre in Australia’s tiny northern neighbour.
The proposal, announced last week, drew criticism after it was revealed Ms Gillard had consulted East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta on the issue but not its Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
Ms Gillard said earlier on Monday she wanted to act quickly to establish the centre.
“Well, I will be doing this as quickly as possible,” the prime minister told reporters in Adelaide on Monday.
“I’m determined to get it done. I announced it last Tuesday, and I have been determined each day since to get it done.”
But Ms Gillard said people needed to be realistic.
“This will take some time. We will be focused on it,” she said.
“I’m focused on it now. And there is a dialogue with East Timor now.”
Hours later, ABC Radio reported only 34 of the 65 members of East Timor’s parliament had voted on the proposal, rejecting it unanimously.
Ms Gillard declined to answer journalists’ questions about the East Timorese resolution as she attended a book launch in Sydney on Monday evening.
The news from East Timor will be more fodder for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has continued to attack Ms Gillard’s proposal.
“The prime minister is lost somewhere in the Timor Sea,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
“She said that the government had lost its way. It hasn’t found its way – it’s wandering around the region in search of an offshore processing centre.”
Mr Abbott called on the federal government to use the Nauru facility built for immigration detainees by the Howard government as part of its so-called Pacific Solution.
Labor won’t consider Nauru because the tiny Pacific island country hasn’t ratified the UN refugee convention.
The only country Ms Gillard wouldn’t talk to was the one country “apparently willing to host (a centre)”, Mr Abbott said.
“The one country where Australia actually paid for a centre is the one country Julia Gillard’s too proud to talk too.”
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith will go to Jakarta later this week to discuss Labor’s regional plan and process.
He is expected to push ahead with discussions with East Timor.
The parliament’s rejection was a blow for Labor, which is seeking to show strong leadership on the issue ahead of the election.
Fifty-six per cent of respondents to an Essential Research poll, published on Monday, believed Labor was too soft on the issue.
But 42 per cent of people approved of the way Ms Gillard was addressing it, compared with 33 per cent who disapproved.
MP David Bradbury, who holds the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, said the prime minister’s policy has helped to ease community tension in his seat.
“Everything that people have seen over the last week demonstrates (the) prime minister is going to take strong and effective action,” Mr Bradbury told ABC Radio.