Australian politicians were warned Friday of more asylum-seeker boat deaths while parliament goes on a six-week winter break after they failed to reach a compromise on the divisive issue.
Parliament broke up Thursday after Senate opposition and Greens lawmakers rejected a private member’s bill to send boatpeople offshore for processing, leaving the issue at a stalemate following a spate of deadly incidents.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said parliamentarians should not be going into recess when such an important matter remained unresolved.
“We should be sitting today, we should have continued sitting last night, we should sit next week, we should sit until we get a solution,” he told state broadcaster ABC.
“I think there is every chance in the world that more people will die during this six-week recess,” he said.
The bill was introduced after two crowded asylum-seeker boats sank off the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, near Indonesia, over the past week.
In the first incident, 110 people were saved and an estimated 90 drowned while the sinking of a second boat on Wednesday left four dead, with 130 rescued.
With few legislative options left, prime minister Julia Gillard commissioned an expert review led by former defence force chief Angus Houston to review the policy options with “fresh eyes”.
She promised to consider whatever was suggested, but would not commit to dropping her controversial Malaysia people-swap plan if doing so was recommended.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott described her move as a pointless exercise.
“This committee is not a solution. This is outsourcing the prime ministership,” he said as politicians began leaving Canberra for their constituencies.
Since January a stream of asylum-seekers have attempted to reach Australia by boat, with two more vessels carrying 144 passengers intercepted in the past 24 hours taking the 2012 total to 69 boats with 5,146 on board.
The previous record – 134 boats carrying 6,555 boatpeople – was set in 2010, when the politically sensitive issue dominated national elections, despite overall numbers being relatively minor by global standards.
Most come from Indonesia on unseaworthy vessels, and some founder in the vast seas off northern Australia and never make it to their destination.
The government wants to send boat arrivals to Malaysia for processing, but the opposition refuses to agree, arguing Kuala Lumpur is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.
Abbott favours re-opening a detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru and turning boats back where possible. The left-leaning Greens, on whom the government relies for its rule, are opposed to any offshore processing.
Australian media lashed out the failure to find a breakthrough, with The Sydney Daily Telegraph saying on its front page: “Our MPs wept for boat poeple… then went on holiday without helping them.”
The Sydney Morning Herald said Gillard and Abbott had not once spoken directly about the impasse in the past two days.
“There was no genuine attempt to broker a way through,” chief political correspondent Phillip Coorey wrote.