Image provided by the merchant vessel MV Bison Express.
Image provided by the merchant vessel MV Bison Express. Australian Maritime Safety Authority

House passes bill on asylum seekers

A BILL paving the way for Australia to process asylum seekers offshore has passed the lower house, capping an extraordinary day in the Federal Parliament.

Members debated Rob Oakeshott's bill, which would allow offshore processing in member countries of the Bali process, for more than four hours.

The Bali process, a regional approach to combating people smuggling, has 46 member countries, including Malaysia and Nauru.

Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie succeeded in having a 12-month sunset clause attached to the bill, which finally passed the House of Representatives shortly before 8pm.

Coalition attempts to amend the bill, so offshore processing could only be done in signature countries to the UN's Refugee Convention, was defeated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's last-minute pitch to lure crossbench support for the amendment - a "commitment" to increase Australia's annual refugee intake to 20,000 within three years - fell on deaf ears and was defeated.

But the bill now faces a hostile Senate.

The Greens do not support any form of offshore processing, and will join with the Coalition to defeat it in the upper house.

On an eventful day in the nation's capital, other key developments included:

Up to 40 MPs from across the political divide meeting in the morning, before the boat capsizing, in an effort to reach a bipartisan resolution to the asylum seeker impasse.

Question time being abandoned so Mr Oakeshott's bill could be debated.

Mr Abbott trying unsuccessfully to move a private members bill to have the Coalition's policy adopted.

Mr Oakeshott's bill and the subsequent Coalition amendments generating spirited debate, lasting more than five hours.

Greens Deputy Leader Adam Bandt telling the lower house the Greens would not support the bill, even with the Coalition amendments.

In a week that was supposed to be all about the carbon tax, the sinking of a second boat in less than a week north of Christmas Island ensured asylum seeker policy dominated the political agenda on the penultimate day before Parliament rises for the winter break.

As of 7pm, Customs and Border Protection had confirmed one death after a boat capsized 200km north of Christmas Island. Three merchant vessels had plucked 125 survivors from the sea.

Initial reports are that up to 150 people may have been onboard, including women and children.

The incident occurred about 24km east of where another boat capsized last week. Up to 90 people are thought to have died in that incident.

Earlier in the day Prime Minister Julia Gillard told MPs the "eyes of the nation" were on them.
In a desperate bid to break the policy impasse, Ms Gillard brought forward debate on independent MP Rob Oakeshott's private members bill.

"In view of these events, and in view of the events of last week, I want to say to the Parliament now most sincerely that I believe the time for the party divide on this issue is at an end," Ms Gillard said.

"We have seen too much tragedy. And I can't, and I don't believe other Members of Parliament can, now sit here with the prospect of more tragedy to come."

Ms Gillard said it was significant the bill had been brought by an independent MP.

This, she said, would ensure there were no winners and losers.

"I, as a Labor leader, would want to walk from this place saying no-one won, no-one lost, we just got something done," she said.

"And I think an independent member's bill gives us all the opportunity to do just that."

Ms Gillard said if Mr Oakeshott's bill passed both houses, the government would reopen a detention centre on Nauru, the Opposition's preferred option, as well as proceeding with the Malaysia option.

She said the government would also undertake a review to assess the "deterrence value" of temporary protection visas, created under John Howard's government and torn up by Kevin Rudd in 2008.

Mr Abbott said the coalition's asylum seeker policy had been consistent.

"We've always supported offshore processing with protections," Mr Abbott said.

Mr Abbott repeatedly referred to finding "common ground", but said the Coalition would "never" support any policy in which asylum seekers were sent to Malaysia.

He said the disasters raised serious questions about Australia's border protection resources in the region, improved co-operation with Indonesia and government policy.



6.17am: Australian Federal Police receive a satellite call from a vessel, possibly in distress, two nautical miles north of Christmas Island. AFP alerts the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Border protection command vessels rush to the scene, but find nothing.

7.30am: AFP receives a further call from the vessel, advising that it is actually 107 nautical miles north of Christmas Island. Large scale search and rescue, co-ordinated by AMSA, begins.

10.30am: Two merchant vessels reach the estimated location of the vessel in distress and reports seeing a vessel stopped in the water with people on board wearing life jackets. No people are reported as being in the water.

11.37am: The merchant vessel reports that the boat is sinking and there are people in the water. The merchant vessel deploys life rafts to render assistance.

2pm: HMAS Maitland arrives on the scene.

4pm: HMAS Leeuwin arrives on the scene.

5pm: Customs confirms the death of least one person and the rescue of 125 people