Prime Minister Julia Gillard has established an expert group led by former defence chief Angus Houston to examine asylum seeker policy after hours of debate in the Senate today.

Ms Gillard made the announcement after the Senate voted down a bill to restore offshore processing after seven and a half hours of debate.

“(He will) provide a report to me and to the nation about the best way forward for our nation in dealing with asylum seeker issues,” Ms Gillard said.

“The expert group that Mr Angus Houston will lead will also have serving in its number Paris Aristotle.”

Mr Aristotle is a prominent refugee lawyer.

Ms Gillard said she would appoint a third member with foreign expertise.

The group will be able to receive facts from Government and beyond, with briefings available from wherever they wanted.

“They will be able to consult as they see fit,” she said.

The prime minister said the Government’s proposal for the Malaysia people swap deal was supported by evidence.

The Government was keen to see fresh eyes and get new expertise.

Ms Gillard said there had been goodwill generated in coalition ranks, “at least at the back bench level.”

It was important the expert group could relate to parliamentarians and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Greens leader Christine Milne would be invited to be parliamentary representatives to the reference group.

Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott had an entrenched view about the issue.

“Mr Abbott has said consistently the only thing he is prepared to vote for is his plan,” she said.

“Mr Abbott did not move one millimetre at any stage of this ... while people are drowning at sea.”

The opposition leader had received briefings and been told by experts Nauru would not work.

In putting together the expert panel with people of the highest calibre, it could not be criticised, Ms Gillard said.

“We believe the outcome of that will be very persuasive.”

The expert group would act independently and form their own views of the evidence of the facts.

“Angus Houston and the team he leads are free to come to any conclusion they want to,” Ms Gillard said.

Ms Gillard said no member of the group was partisan.

“None of them have a political view to push here,” she said.

She said it would be remarkable indeed if Mr Abbott refused to accept the views of Mr Houston.

“I can’t believe that’s possible.”

Mr Houston has a track record of delivering unpalatable advice on the subject of asylum seekers.

As acting defence chief in 2001, he told then defence minister Peter Reith in emphatic terms that no children had been thrown overboard from an asylum-seeker vessel.

This was just before the 2001 federal election, which was dominated by the asylum-seeker issue.

The then coalition government of John Howard had revealed - quite incorrectly it subsequently emerged - how an asylum seeker had thrown a child overboard from a vessel to ensure the passengers were picked up by the Australian navy.

Mr Houston - a former helicopter pilot who was recognised for bravery after a sea rescue conducted in gale-force winds off the NSW coast in 1979 - joined the air force in 1970.

He later commanded the RAAF and became defence chief in 2005.

His intervention in the children overboard scandal did him no harm.

He later served under the coalition government and then Labor, in a period when defence was busier than at any time since the Vietnam war.

Mr Houston won high praise from both sides for his calm and forthright manner and sound advice.

He retired in July 2011 and, after a brief vacation, took on the job of leading planning for the ANZAC centenary celebrations in 2015.

He is also chairman of Airservices Australia, the nation’s air-traffic manager.

The West Australian

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