Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Malaysian counterpart have met for the first time since the collapse of their people-swap deal and have reaffirmed their commitment to the controversial arrangement despite the domestic political deadlock.
Ms Gillard met Najib Razak in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth on Thursday. People smuggling was high on the agenda.
“They agreed on the importance of regional solutions to the challenge of irregular migration,” a spokesperson for Ms Gillard said soon after the meeting.
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“Both prime ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the Malaysia-Australia transfer agreement as an innovative and effective approach to combating people smuggling.”
Ms Gillard and Mr Najib struck the people-swap deal in May.
It would have resulted in Australia sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 proven refugees.
But the High Court subsequently ruled the deal unlawful and the government’s attempts at resurrecting it through legislative change have not attracted enough parliamentary support.
Nonetheless, the government says it remains committed to the policy, which it believes would undermine people smugglers and stop asylum seeker boats sailing for Australia.
The leaders’ meeting coincided with an opinion piece Mr Najib published in Australian newspapers on Thursday.
Mr Najib said he entered into the deal because he did not want to see an event like the Christmas Island boat tragedy happen again.
“At this point, it would be easy to give up, to tell ourselves that we tried but the problem was too big, too politically difficult to deal with,” he wrote.
“And the people-smuggling would go on. The boats would continue to sail. Heartless traffickers would continue to take everything from desperate people – their money, their dignity and, all too often, their lives.
“As the prime minister of a progressive, liberal nation, I’m not prepared to stand by and watch that happen.
“Malaysia has always led Southeast Asia in dealing with international problems, so we will continue to work with Australia, and our partners across the region and beyond, to find new ways of stopping the traffickers for good.” It is too early to say what the next stage in the fight will look like, he wrote.
“But one thing is clear – we cannot afford to play politics with people trafficking.
“It is nothing less than a 21st-century trade in human misery and it must not be allowed to continue.” Ms Gillard and Mr Najib also discussed ways to strengthen and reform the Commonwealth.
The also discussed the upcoming East Asia Summit in Indonesia and the need to contain the economic crisis in eurozone countries.