At Geelong's Walk Together rally on October 25, Labor's shadow immigration minister Richard Marles told the crowd Labor would “welcome” refugees.
Despite trying to appeal to the crowd's message of acceptance and tolerance, Marles was heckled by members of Rural Australians for Refugees and the Socialist Alliance. Unionists from the Geelong Trades Hall stood up front and turned their backs on him while he spoke.
It was fitting, too, because the very next day, Marles was on Sky News telling the interviewer Labor could support a “turn back the boats” policy if elected to government.
Taking credit for the Coalition's “Pacific solution”, Marles said: “We have no doubt at all about the impact of the turnback policy; it has had an impact …
“If there was a situation where Indonesia were cooperating with this policy, I think that's a complete game-changer.”
Asked if Labor would turn back boats, he said: “Well, we might.”
His comments sparked a wave of rebuttals and outrage. Labor for Refugees said the concession to the Coalition was “appalling” and “totally unacceptable”. Labor MPs rushed to tell the media that Labor's policy, which includes offshore processing but not official turn backs, “hasn't changed”. Marles subsequently claimed his comments only meant Labor has an “open mind” to stopping refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
However, the Coalition seized on his comments as a concession that the government's brutal refugee policies “work”. Immigration minister Scott Morrison used the opportunity to call on Labor to support the rest of the Coalition's policies, and get over its “stubborn pride”.
Labor has consistently adopted the Coalition’s policies to the point that there's no difference between the two parties.
Labor reopened the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, making them into makeshift hellholes and composing the legislation that dumps refugees there indefinitely. The Coalition simply worked with what Labor left them, sending women and children to Nauru and allowing hostile locals in Papua New Guinea to abuse the men detained on Manus Island.
Labor refused to grant tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Australia permanent protection visas, instead issuing dodgy and insecure “bridging visas”, which created an underclass of people who stretched the resources of every advocacy group and charity willing to help.
This caused a huge backlog in the immigration department's system, which has just made it easier for the Coalition to instill a culture of rejection, overturned appeals and deportations. Bridging visas are just a means toward temporary protection in Morrison's eyes.
Geelong Trades Hall members were right to turn their backs on Marles, whose comments serve only to encourage the cruel and racist policies of the Coalition. Labor has refused to stand up for the rights and safety of refugees, so it deserves no support from those it claims to represent.
It is easier for Labor to equivocate over refugee policy than to address its weaknesses and failures. But trying to play the racism card against the Coalition is pointless when PM Tony Abbott and Morrison hold the entire deck.
The Socialist Alliance, the party for which I am standing, is one of the few parties that wholly rejects the game-playing of Labor and the Coalition and stands for a pro-refugee alternative.
Offshore detention, boat turnbacks, deporting refugees and making their lives hell only pushes the problems back onto the rest of the world. The Socialist Alliance believes Australia has the resources and ability to be better than that.
Genuinely welcoming all refugees, and seeking to end war and poverty globally are the big picture goals that the likes of Marles will never understand.
[Sarah Hathway is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Geelong in the Victorian elections.]