Turning back asylum seeker boats can only be done legally and ethically, in my view, with the agreement of transitional countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Unfortunately the form of the decision made at the ALP conference makes clear that the ALP would seek to act without such agreement.
The specific motion rejected by conference was:
- Labor rejects turning away boats of people seeking asylum. We believe it undermines the cooperation required to reach sustainable regional processing arrangements.
- Work to establish and maintain regional refugee settlement frameworks.
- Turnbacks will be used only “where it is safe to do so”.
- Boats will only be turned back to transitional countries, not to source countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma.
- For boats coming from source countries, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees will tick off all processing – whether it occurs on water or not.
- Labor sources are adamant no one who comes by boat will ever be resettled in Australia under any circumstances.
- Australia will double its annual humanitarian refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025.
- Temporary Protection Visas will be abolished.
- The United Nations Refugee Convention will be reinstated in the Migration Act.
- A record $450 million will be contributed over three years to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to boost capacity in south-east Asia and the Pacific.
- Implement more independent oversight of Australian-funded immigration facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. It is understood there is already an oversight body but its deliberations have not been made public under the current government.
- Restore access to the Refugee Review Tribunal.
- Appoint an independent children’s monitor, outside the immigration department and the ministry, who will have statutory powers to advocate and investigate on behalf of asylum seeker children in detention, community detention or on bridging visas. The monitor will be able to take legal action on behalf of children but the minister would remain guardian.
- Labor will not adopt the government’s secretive approach to asylum boat arrivals and will instead make a public announcement whenever boats arrive or are turned around.
There are a few obvious problems. First, 27,000 by 2025 is not nearly enough. If we quadrupled our intake to 50,000 we would still be taking less than half what Germany takes on a per capita basis.
Second, we can expect large boatloads from Sri Lanka. If the UNHCR is involved many of these will, I think, be found to be refugees. Our international obligation is to process and settle them here. Moreover it will be simply impractical to shunt them off to Manus Island and Nauru.
Third, unilaterally turning back boats is surely incompatible with establishing regional co-operation.
Paul Power, Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), sees the Bali process as a dead end and recommends establishing bilateral arrangements with transition countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. If we took the majority of our humanitarian refugee quota from our regional area and assisted those countries through foreign aid in dealing with refugees, we could then and only then make arrangements to turn back boats. Anyone undertaking a boat crossing to Christmas Island could legitimately be put at the back end of the queues established in those countries.
Way back in the 1970s, we, along with mainly the US, France and Canada, established collection points in several countries in the region when were dealing with the mass exodus from Vietnam. The vast majority of Vietnamese refugees did not come here by boat.
Finally, they say the camera doesn’t lie. It does, of course, and can be cruel. Here are two images of Bill Shorten leaving the conference session:
From what I saw on TV, I’d say he was between the two, but leaning towards the latter – gutted, rather than victorious.
I listened to some of the speeches on NewsRadio. They were passionate, but super respectful of alternative views. There is little doubt, however, that as Katherine Murphy suggested, the issue broke Labor’s heart. Tanya Plibersek was genuinely conflicted. In the end she and Penny Wong stayed away and voted for the motion by proxy, that is, against Shorten. Albanese, as you would expect, was up front. Tony Burke spoke of the 33 people who died in less than four months when he was Minister, including a 10-week-old baby. He asked for the baby’s name and kept it on a post-it note on his desk.
Will the wounds heal? There will certainly be residual scar tissue. Not on the part of Anthony Albanese. On Insiders, he lauded the process the Party had used. Everyone had their say, everyone had one vote, you vote, accept the result and move on.
I think a Labor government could have its “full suite of measures” to combat people smugglers, but only if it proceeds co-operatively. There is no other way.