Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has challenged Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to a debate on asylum seekers next week.
Despite most observers concluding that Mr Rudd won yesterday’s health debate against Mr Abbott at the National Press Club in Canberra, the Opposition Leader says he is still keen for a series of debates, including one on border protection.
“I was very happy with the debate and I challenge Mr Rudd to have more of them,” he said.
“If Mr Rudd thinks that yesterday’s debate was such a great success for him, let’s have more.
“Let’s have one on border protection next week. [Then] we can have one about pink batts and the school hall rip-off.”
Mr Rudd has declined the invitation, saying Mr Abbott should be focused on health policy.
Mr Abbott’s challenge came as a United Nations report revealed Australia received 6,170 asylum applications in 2009 – 30 per cent more than in the previous year.
That is 1.6 per cent of the total around the world, where 50,000 applications were made to the United States and 42,000 to France.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Government’s softened stance on border protection is behind the rise.
“Clearly we have an Australian problem here and it’s a product of Australian policy forces,” he said.
But Immigration Minister Chris Evans has rejected the Opposition’s claims.
Senator Evans says the conflict in Afghanistan is to blame for the increase in asylum seekers fleeing to Australia.
But he says Australia’s proportion of the world total is still very low.
“We’re getting less than 2 per cent of those fleeing to industrialised countries, but we are seeing increased arrivals from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka,” he said.
“While the situation in those countries remains difficult, we’ll continue to see people arrive.”
Australia is ranked 16th out of 44 industrialised nations in terms of how many asylum seeker applications are received.
Meanwhile, the Greens say any debate on border protection should include them.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the major parties both need to be challenged on the issue.
“To put forward a real solution, an Australian solution, that is fair, humane, practical and long-term, because that’s what we need,” she said.
The Greens are also stepping up pressure on the Government over the conditions on Christmas Island.
Senator Hanson-Young wants an urgent review by the Immigration ombudsman into the time it takes to process asylum seekers, as well as the facilities on the island.
“I’m calling on the Government to ask the ombudsman to do this,” she said.
“I think it would be a good thing for them to be able to have some independent assessment.
“But if, on the return of Parliament, we have had no movement, I will introduce a motion and amendment to the Commonwealth Ombudsman Act, to ensure that we can get things moving.”