As the first day of Labor’s 2015 national conference winds down, the party’s position on asylum seekers – and the future of Australia’s policy in the area – hangs in the balance.
For some time leading up to the conference there had been a concerted push in the party to have it explicitly come out against turn backs, a move that was handed a blow earlier this week when Leader Bill Shorten and Immigration Minister Richard Marles publicly backed the policy.
The aim for those on the other side had been to amend the party’s platform to leave no ambiguity about Labor’s opposition. For those on the side of Marles and Shorten, the goal is to prevent the issue being raised at all tomorrow, when refugee policy will be discussed.
Speaking to New Matilda today, Co-Convenor of Labor for Refugees Shane Prince, refused to confirm whether the group would even move a motion calling on the party to take an anti-turn back stand.
Instead, Prince argued that as turn backs were a breach of international law the party platform was in fact already opposed to them.
The draft platform prepared for the conference says Labor will treat asylum seekers in accordance with Australia’s international obligations.
“Something we have to weigh up is whether we have to move such a motion to make something abundantly clear which we say is already abundantly clear,” Prince said.
“We’re not in the business of moving motions just for the sake of doing it. What we do not want to do, for obvious reasons, is to move a motion that then fails.
“Because that will confuse the party, it will lead to internal divisions on an ongoing basis, and it will be used as an argument to say that the platform allows turn backs and we say it doesn’t. We don’t want division within the party.”
Despite Prince’s equivocation, there are proposals to amend Labor’s turn back stance circulating.
One seen by New Matilda proposes Labor reject policies of “deterrence”, “especially intercepting and turning back boats to sea, or transferring refugees to other vessels for immediate return to their countries of origin without a proper assessment of their claims for protection”.
If Labor for Refugees delegates don’t lodge the amendment tonight, and a single rogue delegate doesn’t go for it themself, the most likely scenario would be a member of the Parliamentary left faction moving the measure.
Today the Left again failed to come to a position on the issue.
During conference lunch-break Left faction decided to defer final decision on turn-backs until tomorrow morning
— David Speers (@David_Speers) July 24, 2015
There are murmurs that instead of an anti-turn back amendment being moved tomorrow, other changes to the party’s policy could be pushed to appease the left.
In an occasionally heated exchange, Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles appeared before a room of party members and the media this afternoon, and fielded questions about the policy.
During the exchange he appeared to confirm the party would adopt new humanitarian policies in its platform, and referenced caps on periods of detention as well as the detention of children.
“Detention is absolutely no place for a child. We should in the future be getting kids out of detention as soon as humanly possible,” he said.
But Marles was unable to explain what, if anything, a future Labor government would do for refugees already released into the community on Nauru, who have experienced serious difficulties integrating into the island’s 10,000 population.
To the displeasure of asylum seeker advocates in the room, the Shadow Minister confirmed he did not believe Labor could move the 2,000 people waiting for settlement on Nauru and Manus Island back to Australia.
While acknowledging the majority of those making the trip from Indonesia to Australia by boat were “genuine” refugees, he said those people did not face persecution in Indonesia, an assertion heavily contested by refugee advocates.
Speaking to New Matilda earlier in the day, ACTU President Ged Kearney said she was worried about the implications of Labor adopting further hard line policies.
“I get concerned that in the very difficult political situation that we find ourselves in, with the Abbott government having pushed this as a major election issue, if we respond by tyring to neutralise the issue and having what we see as a less than optimal policy, I think we just find ourselves deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole and it just makes it harder and harder to get out of that.”
By this time Saturday afternoon, we’ll know how deep the party is prepared to go.
Meanwhile, in a talk organised by Labor for Refugees, the party faithful packed in to watch human rights lawyers Julian Burnside and David Manne, and, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Ged Kearney.
In a pre-recorded video, the sound to which cut in and out, Burnside drew cheers from the room after he denounced Tony Abbott as the worst Prime Minister in Australia’s history. He received a similar response when he labelled Bill Shorten the country’s worst Opposition Leader.
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