Labor’s refugee policy is just a watered down version of the Liberals


Recently I went to an asylum seeker forum at Gosford Anglican Parish. Hosted by the awesome Father Rod Bower and chaired by Labor’s Senator Deborah O’Neill, it featured special guest speaker, Labor’s Shadow immigration minister Richard Marles.

I was nervous when I arrived. When I left, I was furious! Here’s why…

Despite talking a lot, and very well, Marles made just seven points.

Let’s take a look at each of these points individually.

1. Liberal is worse than Labor

No arguments here, Liberal asylum seeker policies are definitely worse than Labor’s. They reduced our total refugee intake quota from 20,000 under Labor to 13,750. They are turning boats back in breach of international law and Indonesia’s sovereignty. They haven’t processed a single claim for an asylum seeker in offshore detention since taking office (more than a year ago). They are trying to legislate so Australia is less bound by international law, and they’re trying to introduce temporary visas.

But let’s be clear. Labor are no angels. They introduced offshore detention, under Gillard. And they want it retained.

2. Labor believes in compassion, fairness, generosity and no harm

What is compassionate about locking up people who are fleeing murder, torture, wrongful imprisonment and other forms of persecution? What’s fair or generous about that?

And no harm? According to The Age, the organisation contracted to provide medical services in detention centres (International Health and Medical Services) reported that: “About half the asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island and Nauru are suffering from significant depression, stress or anxiety, according to clinical assessments … specialists blame the ‘detention environment’ rather than the adequacy of services for the worsening mental health of detainees.”

Then there’s their physical health to consider. Detainees are imprisoned in squalid conditions, without adequate access to appropriate healthcare. People are dying.

Sure, Marles says he thinks the centres should be run better, but almost in the same breath he said we can’t guarantee the safety of asylum seekers kept in detention.

It’s clear that Labor doesn’t believe in compassion, fairness, generosity and no harm. It’s just more hypocrisy.

3. Any genuine refugees currently in offshore detention should be resettled in Australia

Marles clearly said this and I completely agree. But I don’t believe him at all. In fact, he said exactly the opposite a year ago, when discussing the possibility that some refugees from Manus Island might have to be resettled in Australia: “Australia should not be put back on the table. Nothing would be more detrimental to Australia’s strategy to reducing the flow of boats from Indonesia than that.”

4. Australia is faced with a ‘cohort’ of 7 million refugees who want asylum here

Seven million refugees are NOT trying to seek asylum in Australia. Yes, there are approximately 7 million refugees seeking permanent asylum in another country, and yes, I’m sure many/most/all would love that country to be Australia. But only a very small handful of them have the means to get here or are trying to.

So to suggest that our asylum seeker responsibilities must be considered in the context of 7 million people who need our help is disingenuous. There are other countries who also resettle refugees. It’s a shared international load.
5. Our detention centres need to be run better
Yes they do. On this, Marles and I agree. But were they better run under Labor? Remember it was Gillard who reintroduced offshore processing on Nauru and Manus. Well, according to —while Labor was in office — things were pretty grim back then too.

“The main issues of concern expressed by many stakeholders regarding the ‘Pacific Solution’ revolved around the conditions of the offshore processing centres; the lack of independent scrutiny; the mental health impacts on those held in the centres; and the lengthy periods of time that many asylum seekers spent on Nauru and Manus Island while their claims were being processed.

“The conditions on Nauru and Manus Island attracted a great deal of criticism from refugee advocates and other stakeholders, including many parliamentarians. The report of the inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident outlined many of these concerns and noted that the Nauru site initially lacked water, sanitation and electricity with asylum seekers housed under harsh conditions. Evidence to the Select Committee suggested that the facilities on Manus were a slight improvement on those in Nauru; however, several asylum seekers contracted malaria.

“Several witnesses to the Committee also expressed concern about the lack of independent scrutiny, difficulty in obtaining access to the facilities and an apparent lack of access to legal advice for detainees.”

Maybe Marles means “better than both Liberal and Labor have done it”. But he certainly didn’t say that — indeed, in the context of his Liberal-slamming, it was clear that’s not what he meant.

6. Detention centres are a deterrent, but they’re not based on deprivation

Marles agreed with Father Rod Bower that mandatory detention is used as a deterrent. But he denied it was based on deprivation.

Imprisoning asylum seekers for doing no more than exercising their fundamental human rights is depriving them of freedom and dignity. It’s laughable — although not funny — to argue detention centres are not about deprivation. By definition, that’s exactly what they’re about.

7. Mandatory detention is the only way to save lives at sea

Many times during the night, Marles positioned mandatory detention as both a solution to deaths at sea and the only solution to deaths at sea. This argument is false and disingenuous on three fronts.
First, there’s no verifiable evidence to support the argument that mandatory detention policies deter asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia. When Howard introduced it in 2001, the .

The introduction of the Pacific Solution in September 2001 coincided with the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Up to this point, Afghanistan had been one of our major sources of asylum seekers — 17% in 2001-02. Also, from 2001 to 2002 there was a 45% drop in refugee numbers worldwide.

When Gillard re-introduced the Pacific Solution in 2012, it didn’t immediately slow the boats as Marles claimed. In fact, .

Second, even if —and it’s a big “if” — mandatory detention does deter would-be asylum seekers, is that something to be proud of? Sure, it might reduce the deaths at our doorstep, but would they not just go somewhere else to die? Do they just attempt some other dangerous journey? Or a journey to some other dangerous country? Or do they just stay home and get murdered by their persecutors? Marles dismissed these claims last night as absolutely untrue, but he didn’t supply any verifiable evidence, nor has anyone else that I’m aware of.

Marles also misleadingly claimed that people who suggest our mandatory detention policy might simply cause asylum seekers to die elsewhere don’t believe deaths at sea are Australia’s responsibility. Deaths at sea are our responsibility. But so too are deaths caused elsewhere by our policies.

Finally, to suggest that mandatory detention is the only solution to deaths at sea is patently absurd. The , with Labor’s blessing — $10 billion since 2007.

If putting innocent people in jail is the only solution they could buy with $10 billion, they’re definitely the wrong people for the job. What about rescuing people at sea? What about processing people in Indonesia? And in the long term, what about diplomatic solutions to reduce the actual number of refugees, rather than military operations to increase them?

On refugees, as on most things, Labor is just a watered-down version of Liberal.

When I got home from the forum, I told my wife I shouldn’t have gone. But now I’m glad I did. It reinforced for me how Labor is now just a watered-down version of Liberal; how their politicians are hypocritical, manipulative, disingenuous, evasive and dangerous. More importantly, it strengthened my resolve to campaign for better alternatives.

[Glenn Murray blogs at where this was first published.]


Disingenuousness is one of the major problems with what purports to be a debate on refugee issues in Australia. In a court of law, this would be regarded as failure to tell the whole truth. But outside the law courts, spokespeople feel they can simply omit critical information which the public needs in order to make a valid judgement on the issue, and lazy journalists fail to do their homework, fail to hold politicians to account, and fail to ask the questions about the information that's been cynically left out. So the so-called "debate" just becomes a shouting match, in which the only winners are the politicians hiding behind their lack of frankness.