Accepting Turn Backs Is About Helping Labor Not Asylum Seekers, Says Refugee Body


The push to have Labor adopt the Coalition’s policy of turning asylum seeker boats back to sea would put the party in a more extreme policy position than some far-right parties in Europe and force persecuted people back into the hands of their persecutors, according to the head of the Refugee Council of Australia.

Paul Power, CEO of the organisation, told New Matilda this morning that the move by Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles to have the party adopt the policy had nothing to do with humanitarian concerns, and would provoke serious questions about what the party stood for.

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s got nothing to do with the protection of refugees and everything to do with Labor’s view of its political position,” Power said.

“Sadly for the Labor Party this direction is going to leave millions of Australians deeply, deeply cynical about the ALP and whether it stands for anything. This policy, that the Abbott government is promoting, is the most hard-line in the world of any nation Australia would like to compare itself to.”

On Wednesday evening both Marles and Shorten took to the media to announce they had reversed their positions on turn backs, signalling their desire to mirror that of the Abbott government.

Appearing on radio, television, and in print, Marles and Shorten talked up the humanitarian aspect of the policy, and embraced the Coalition argument that it would help prevent deaths at sea.

“It's not an easy issue for Labor because on one hand we're absolutely committed to the humane treatment of refugees and on the other hand we also want to prevent people drowning at sea and we want to make sure that the people smugglers and the criminal syndicates can't get back into action by exploiting government policies,” Shorten said on the ABC’s 7:30 program last night.

But the debate within the party is far from over, with the Left faction due to caucus today, and the question of turn backs expected to be debated.

Labor for Refugees, a group agitating for more humane policy within the party, had been working to have the issue explicitly debated at the party’s national conference, to be held in Melbourne this weekend, with the hope of adopting an explicitly anti turn back policy in the party’s platform.

But that challenge now looks immense, with the first hurdle being today’s Left caucus.

Robin Rothfield, a national co-convenor of Labor for Refugees, said there was still some hope Labor would not adopt the policy being advocated by Marles and Shorten.

“It’s really difficult for me to predict. I’ve been in two meetings this week with two unions which are aligned to the right and they’ve both been very supportive of us,” he said.

“I’m quite shattered by what Shorten and Marles have done. I can’t believe that I belong to the same party as they belong to.”

Asked if the Labor for Refugees campaign had failed, Rothfield was frank.

“It is a worry. It is a worry, what more can I say,” he said. “But let’s see what happens today and on Saturday.”

Greens Immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young took to twitter to slam the change in direction from Shorten and Marles.





Refugee groups have announced protests will take place to coincide with Labor’s national conference, with the Refugee Action Collective describing Shorten and Marles’ shift as “a capitulation to Abbott’s fear and scapegoating of asylum seekers; a triumph of electoral opportunism over compassion, justice and fairness”.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.