Australian lawmakers defy Prime Minister over immigration reform

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Four ruling coalition lawmakers defied Australian leader John Howard on Thursday by rejecting tough new immigration laws, the most serious challenge to the prime minister's authority in his 10 years in power.

The laws mean all asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia would be sent to the remote Pacific island nation of Nauru while their claims are assessed.

But some lawmakers strongly opposed the legislation because children would also be detained in Nauru, despite a promise by Howard a year ago that children would no longer be kept in immigration detention.

The new laws were designed to ease Indonesian concerns after Australia granted asylum to 43 Papuans.

Three government politicians voted against Howard's proposed laws, and one abstained. Howard said he would not contemplate changes to the laws and shrugged off the dissent. "Life is an ever-moving and fascinating journey," he said.

While the government won the vote 79 to 62, the fate of the legislation remains uncertain in the upper house, or Senate, where several government lawmakers have expressed concerns. If two vote against the planned laws, the legislation will fail.

Mandatory detention for illegal arrivals has been at the centre of Howard's past two election wins. Church and human rights group have condemned the stance.

Judi Moylan, who voted against Howard, said she could not remain silent on a principle of justice and would not be pressured by Australia's northern neighbour Indonesia.

"I cannot believe that the citizens of this sovereign country would ever cease to wonder, nor would they ever forgive, if we in this house acquiesce in silence to pressure from a neighbour on a matter so much to the heart of our principles of justice," Moylan said during a lower-house debate on the legislation.

Howard has begun talks with independent Senators to try to ensure the legislation passes the upper house. A Senate vote could be held next week.

But Indonesia said the immigration laws were a matter for Australia with visiting Trade Minister Mari Pangestu saying tensions over the Papuan asylum seekers had now passed.

"The passing of your amendments of your immigration bill is very much an Australian matter," Pangestu told reporters after talks with Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile, adding Indonesia did not interfere in Australian matters.


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