Labor and Coalition: different names, same refugee policy

July 10, 2015
A protest outside a Labor Party meeting in Sydney on July 22, 2013.

In breaking news, it seems that the Labor Party left cannot agree to oppose a “turn back the boats” policy. So there seems to be no chance that the upcoming national Labor Party Conference in Melbourne on July 24 to 26 will consider opposing the Coalition policy of turning boats back that are attempting to reach this country, so the passengers can claim asylum, a human right.

On the ABC’s Q&A on June 6, the Shadow Minister for Immigration “and Border Protection” Richard Marles tried to dodge questions from Tony Jones on whether Labor in government would “turn back the boats”. Marles repeatedly said Labor would “close the journey” from Indonesia to Australia.

This can only mean that Labor will copy the Coalition’s policy of turning back the boats. The boats that are turned back are often unseaworthy, so this policy is a dangerous one, as well as being legally questionable.

The government can legally turn back asylum seeker boats if is safe to do so and they are intercepted within 24 nautical miles of the Australian coastline. But it cannot steer the boats into Indonesian waters without Indonesia's permission. With unseaworthy boats it is often unsafe, and Indonesia is definitely not giving its permission.

The important point is, there is no illegality in crossing a border to claim asylum. It is a human right to claim asylum from persecution in a country, such as Australia, that has signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

There is now no difference between the refugee policies of the two major parties. What we can expect from Labor is more nice words and more soft soap, but the same policy.

In August 2012, the Julia Gillard government reopened Nauru and Manus Island detention centres and in July 2013 then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new offshore processing policy saying: "Asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia".

I wrote to the opposition Immigration Minister Richard Marles, criticising Labor for their refugee policy. Marles in a letter dated 22nd June, wrote back: "Labor does not support the Abbott Government's hard-line approach to dealing with those seeking asylum and we strongly believe that men, women and children seeking asylum ought to be treated in a safe, dignified and humane manner."

This, from the Labor Party that reopened Nauru and set up Manus Island immigration detention centre, the “PNG Solution” where Reza Berati, an asylum seeker, would later be murdered. This, from the Labor Party that passes every piece of legislation the Coalition puts before it, including the threat of two years’ jail for detention centre workers who expose sexual molestation or other malpractice, and legislation that allows camp guards to inflict any violence on asylum seekers deemed necessary to maintain “good order”.

Marles goes on: "Where children are in detention, often because they are with their families awaiting processing, Labor believes they should be afforded the best available health care, education and social support services. This includes making sure appropriate care is on hand for their emotional wellbeing."

As the recent case of the 11-year-old boy whose broken arm was wrongly set on Nauru and had to be brought to Australia to have it broken again and reset shows, the health care available on Nauru is definitely sub-standard. Manus Island detention centre is not even equipped to cure simple infections, as the death of Hamid Kehazaei makes plain.

Does Labor support the closure of offshore camps? No. So how does Labor propose to care for the “emotional wellbeing" of detainees? According to Professor Pat McGorry, psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year, the detention centres are “factories for mental illness”. Depression and other mental illness is part and parcel of indefinite detention.

Marles' letter says: "Labor will continue to hold the Abbott Government to account for its draconian treatment of asylum seekers, particularly given the government's woeful track record when it comes to transparency over its policies."

Labor's track record on asylum seekers is appalling. A Labor government started detaining Cambodian asylum seekers in 1992. Labor's record on asylum seekers is no less “draconian” than the Coalition's, except the Coalition has found some new ways to enforce its cruelty, which Labor has backed all the way.

Marles’ letter continues: "In addition Labor has established a Senate inquiry into the government's operation of the Nauru Regional Processing facility. Minister Dutton's response to the release of the Moss Review into allegations at the Nauru Processing Centre was completely inadequate. The Review addressed serious issues within the Australian-funded facility on Nauru and deserved to be treated seriously by the government. The Review found that the allegations of abuse within the centre were credible. That is why Labor believes it is important to have this inquiry and allow these issues to be appropriately examined by the parliament."

Marles makes sure he refers to the “Australian-funded” camp, as if it is not, in reality, Australian. In the case of the Manus Island camp in PNG, this has prompted a court challenge that the detention may be illegal under the PNG constitution, which forbids detention without a recognisable criminal charge. The regime of having privately-run detention centres — holding pens for refugees, concentration camps — on far flung islands, supposedly under the jurisdiction of poor countries that can be bribed into being part of Australia's rights-abusing plan, is always going to result in the kinds of outrages we are seeing now.

Marles says: "Regional processing is the cornerstone of Australia's border protection policy and it must be operated in a manner that provides asylum seekers with a safe and protective environment."

“Regional processing” means keeping people locked up somewhere, not in Australia, while “processing” takes place at a snail's pace, enriching Transfield and Wilson Security, while the Abbott government cuts public services.

"Thank you for taking the time to write to me on this very important issue."

I should thank Marles for making it clear that the needless suffering of desperate people fleeing terrible hardship and persecution will surely continue under a future Labor government.

The Socialist Alliance policy is to scrap detention. There were no legitimate reasons to introduce it. Centres such as the one in Villawood in Sydney, were once hostels that helped new migrants and asylum seekers learn about Australian society and from which they could come and go as they pleased. Refugees who arrive in Australia should be given help, not detained.

We can stop the demonising of asylum seekers that both parties have engaged in, and stop the haemorrhaging of billions of dollars that should be paying for real services for the population, including people trying to start a new life here. In all states and territories in Australia, there are groups that are working to bring back sanity to the way we treat asylum seekers, however they arrive here.

Australia has become an international pariah because of the rights-abusing way it treats people arriving by boat who are seeking asylum. Not even the far-right parties in Britain propose what has become “normal” here. Labor thinks it can win racist votes by copying the Coalition, so it has become “a race to the bottom”.

Individually, we can write to Labor and the government expressing our opposition to their refugee policy. Better, is to join with other people, the Refugee Action Coalition in NSW, or the Refugee Action Collective in Victoria, for instance, to protest outside the ALP National Conference on July 25.

Join in organised resistance to the inhumanity and cruelty that passes for the refugee policy of Labor and the Coalition.

[Stephen Langford is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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What I'm seeing is a Labor Party that is desperate to neutralise the asylum seeker issue in time for the next federal election, whenever that may be. They are slow learners. It has been obvious even throughout the Howard government that in whatever measure Labor tries to match the Coalition, the latter will simply crank up the cruelty another notch. This principle applies even more so under Abbott, who has demonstrated that he simply doesn't care how much he has to ratchet the cruelty up in order to maintain the differential between him and the ALP. So we're caught in a never-ending spiral of escalation which will inevitably continue until the Labor Party comes to its senses and realises it will never win a Dirty Fight with Abbott. How we persuade the Labor Party to achieve this realisation I really don't know. After the balls they made of this portfolio during the Rudd-Gillard years, they seem shit-scared of even mentioning the issue, let alone doing something positive to break the cycle.
You write 'Marles repeatedly said Labor would “close the journey” from Indonesia to Australia. This can only mean that Labor will copy the Coalition’s policy of turning back the boats.' I don't think you can necessarily make this assumption. "Closing the journey" could involve working undercover in Indonesia to disrupt operations and prevent departures. Difficult, and of dubious legality, and not something I agree with, but perhaps possible. At least, that may be what Marles is thinking. Marles's evasive language is an attempt to cover his backside. He can always claim, when charged with implementing a turn-back policy, that his primary aim was to prevent departures, thus closing the journey, and that they're working on that, and that turn-backs will no longer be necessary if and when they succeed. Unfortunately for Marles, Indonesia is a big big country with a long long coastline, and he will find, if he tries for 100% departure prevention, it simply ain't going to work.

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