Earlier this year it looked as if Labor4Refugees’ amendments to the Labor Party’s platform that specifically reject boat turnbacks might win enough votes from the ALP left and the Catholic right to get through at the ALP national conference in late July.
However, the Labor leadership is committed to a policy of deterring asylum seekers and is working to prevent any policy change at the conference.
Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles did the rounds of national union leaders a couple of months ago to try to secure their agreement not to support Labor4Refugees’ amendments. On the ABC's Q&A on July 6, Marles tied himself in knots defending Labor’s support for the Liberal Party's Border Force legislation, which makes it illegal for health workers to report abuse in detention centres.
In June, the Labor leadership received a boost to their position of deterring asylum seekers when Welcome to Australia national director and Labor left delegate to the ALP national conference, Brad Chilcott, made a public call for the refugee movement to support boat turnbacks.
In response to criticism about his position, Chilcott emailed Welcome to Australia members on July 3: “It is clear that neither major political party will allow the re-opening of the boat journey from Java to Christmas Island … History, polling and other research show us that the public will not tolerate the perception of uncontrolled borders.”
Chilcott argues for a “humane” version of Operation Sovereign Borders. His advocacy of boat turnbacks has been very useful for the ALP leadership but his position may also have been influenced by his decision to stand for ALP preselection for the next election.
Chilcott is using the demoralisation among some refugee supporters to persuade them to acquiesce to boat turnbacks by dressing it up as a positive. But there are some facts that Chilcott has to ignore in order to make his arguments.
What about the safety of asylum seekers on boats that have been turned back to Indonesia? At least one boatload of asylum seekers has sunk. The secrecy of the operations means that we do not know the fate of other asylum seekers whose boats have been turned back.
What about the federal government paying people smugglers to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia? Doesn't that make Australia a human trafficker?
What about the fate of asylum seekers who are forced to live in Indonesia, where they have no right to work, for an extended period of time? What about asylum seekers who are prevented from leaving Sri Lanka, which still tortures Tamils and human rights activists?
What about other countries copying the Australian government's stance? Recently the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments turned back the boats of thousands of dehydrated and starving Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma. Hundreds died because no country would allow them onshore.
Turning boats back hasn't stopped the boats. It has just stopped boats arriving in Australia. Asylum seekers are being left to die elsewhere — just not near Australia.
Chilcott argues that the boat turnback position is inevitable because public opinion won't accept anything else. But there is nothing inevitable about it. The ALP introduced and maintained the White Australia policy for decades, only abandoning it when public opinion had changed as a result of anti-racism campaigning. Public opinion and policies do change.
Chilcott implies that the ALP has to adopt boat turnbacks to reflect public opposition to asylum seekers. He neatly sidesteps the fact that it is the Liberal and Labor parties that have demonised asylum seekers and created negative public opinion.
Public opinion can change about refugees. Under the Howard government, the number of people who thought asylum boats should be allowed to land rose from 47% in 2001 to 61% in 2004.
Chilcott argues that boat turnbacks can be humane when coupled with regional processing centres in Indonesia and that Australian and other countries could resettle refugees from these centres. But Australia can already resettle refugees from Indonesia yet takes very few.
Boat turnbacks don't solve anything. If the Australian government were genuine about saving the lives of asylum seekers at sea, they would rescue asylum seeker boats when they are in distress and increase the number of refugees that are resettled in Australia from Indonesia.
We need an Australian solution: end mandatory detention and process asylum seekers' claims while they are living in the community; end offshore processing; rescue asylum seekers and refugees at sea; and allow asylum seeker boats to land. And end Australia's support for the wars and dictatorial regimes that force people from their homes and turn people into asylum seekers.
[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance member and City of Moreland councillor.]