<meta name="ProgId" content="Word.
Immigration policy and the issue of asylum seekers dominated the first half of the leaders’ debate at the National Press Club in Canberra.
Mr Abbott, who earlier in the day announced the coalition’s new immigration policy, challenged Ms Gillard to match his plan for reducing Australia’s immigration intake.
The coalition has promised to cut the annual intake from 300,000 to 170,000 in its first term of government.
“We have nominated what we think is the right number for Australia going forward and I challenge the prime minister to do likewise,” Mr Abbott said.
However, Mr Abbott was forced to defend his policy announcement after it was pointed out during the debate that it was the former Howard government that had allowed immigration levels to rise.
“But it’s the current government which has presided over immigration numbers of 300,000 a year and something needs to be done about an unsustainable rate of increase,” Mr Abbott said in response.
Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott was being convenient with the truth.
The prime minister said the Labor government had already reduced the immigration intake from 300,000 in 2008 to 175,000 this year, with further reductions in the pipeline.
“So the trick here, and I think Tony should really reveal the trick, the trick here is Tony today has promised the Australian people what I’m already delivering to the Australian people,” Ms Gillard said.
Labor has seized on an independent report that suggests population growth would slow without the coalition’s intervention, with the BIS Shrapnel study from May indicating net migration would drop to 175,000 this financial year and 145,000 in 2011-10.
Asylum seekers hot button issue
On the issue of asylum seekers, Ms Gillard said she was “determined” to set up a regional processing centre but refused to set a timeline for it.
“I’m not going to set a false deadline here, we will take the time to get it done,” she said, noting discussions with East Timor, her preferred location, were under way.
Mr Abbott responded, saying East Timor does not want to host the processing hub.
“There will never be a centre in East Timor, never, just never,” he said.
“This is nothing but a pre-election fudge.”
A coalition government would stop the boats, Mr Abbott said, with offshore processing, temporary protection visas and by turning the boats around.
He suggested offshore processing on Nauru, noting it was keen to reopen the detention centre closed by Labor.
Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott was “naive” to suggest Nauru as an option, because its government is in “caretaker mode”.
She also warned a policy to turn boats around could prove deadly.
“It’s not safe to stop the boats because the boats are destroyed before your very eyes,” she said, adding that it also endangers defence personnel.
On climate change, Ms Gillard indicated she would only bring in a price on carbon if the coalition agreed to it.
Previously, she has referred to the need for community consensus, but in the leaders’ debate she focused on the need for bipartisanship. The coalition opposes a carbon price.
“What I’m definitely not going to do is try and get (carbon price) legislation through the parliament, maybe even get it through, and have all of the things change in our economy that would then change, only to find at the next election, maybe with a swing in the political cycle, that that is all taken away,” she said.
“That would be dreadful for our economy.”
She also said the only way for Australia to meet its minimum target to cut emissions by five per cent by 2020 was through a market-based mechanism.
Mr Abbott accused Ms Gillard of failing on climate change.
“I regret to say that there has been a complete failure of leadership from this government and from this prime minister,” he said.
Mr Abbott criticised Labor for outsourcing the carbon price issue to a citizens’ assembly of 150 people. It should be sorted out by parliament, not a “glorified focus group”, he said.
Cost of living
When quizzed on how he would keep a lid on rising grocery prices, Mr Abbott said there was only so much a government could do.
“Government can’t with a stroke of a pen reduce grocery prices,” he said.
Mr Abbott said it was foolish and fraudulent of Labor to have promised to restrain grocery prices before the last election.
But he said people were suffering in the marketplace, and the coalition would cut Labor’s debt and deficit to lower the pressure on prices and taxes.
Ms Gillard said Labor had helped families cope with the cost of living through increasing education rebates, tax cuts and raising the pension.
On the economy, Ms Gillard said there were “some troubling signs” internationally, with some countries struggling to get back on track after the financial crisis.
“As we look at the international outlook, we’ve got to be careful and there are fragilities and some troubling signs, and we’ve got to keep them under close watch,” she said.
But she said she was not predicting a double-dip recession internationally, and said she was “very confident” Australia would return to surplus in 2013.
Mr Abbott said Labor was claiming the credit for Australia’s relative economic success but in fact it owed more to the economic reforms of the previous government, not the “spending spree” stimulus.
Spectre of Kevin Rudd
Ms Gillard refused to say if she discussed her personal concerns about former prime minister Kevin Rudd with him before taking his job.
“I did everything I could, and I worked as hard as I could to try and correct some of the problems that I could see,” she said.
“But it came down to a choice as to whether I should continue to be of service to Kevin Rudd or … to the Australian people.”
She said Mr Abbott would try to make “political points” on the issue.
The opposition leader responded by saying the problem was the government, not the prime minister.
“The problems have been the policies, not the face at the the top.”
On the issue of Afghanistan, Ms Gillard said Labor’s position had not changed and Australia’s mission was to help train their army.
“So that they are in a position to guarantee stability and security in the nation,” she said, estimating a timeline of two to four years.
Mr Abbott agrees Australia’s presence is justified and said he would make any future decisions based on advice from military chiefs.
Mr Abbott said the government was unable to ask the people for a second term based on its record of achievement, because its record was poor.
“It can’t run on its record because that’s record spending, record deficit, record boats and getting rid of an elected prime minister in record time.
It is unlikely there will be any further leaders’ debates before the election despite Mr Abbott in his closing remarks again challenging Ms Gillard to two more.