Move To Have Labor Oppose Asylum Seeker Turn Backs Fails


Labor will not adopt clear opposition to the Abbott government policy of boat turn backs, with delegates today voting down an attempt to amend the party’s policy platform that would have made it explicitly anti turn back.

In a highly anticipated debate party leaders went before members in Melbourne to make the cases for and against the amendment, which has caused deep divisions in the party.

As the first speaker Andrew Giles began he was interrupted by pro-refugee protesters who took to the stage and unfurled a banner that said “no refugee turn backs”.

Giles, who was speaking in favour of the motion against turn backs, looked gutted, but was defiant once the protesters were escorted from the stage and said he was proud to be a member of Bill Shorten’s team.

“We are going to win this argument by persuasion not by protest,” he said.

But those on Giles’ side were not able to convince their own party this weekend, with the anti turn back policy going down in a final, confusing struggle.

When the amendment went to a vote Labor President Mark Butler asked for ayes and nos to be voiced and, despite the ayes clearly being louder, ruled it for the nos.

That provoked anger on the floor, and a show of hands was eventually called for, confirming the foregone conclusion.

Speakers on both sides congratulated the party on the respect shown during the debate, but those who raised their hands against the amendment received a hearty boo and cries of shame as they expressed their opposition.

The vote followed an emotional Left caucus meeting today where, bizarrely, the Labor for Refugees group argued against moving the amendment to make Labor’s policy explicitly anti turn back.

Pro refugee protesters leave placards on the walls of the convention centre

Labor for Refugees has been arguing in recent days that Labor’s platform already opposes turn backs because it calls for the humane treatment of refugees in line with international law. Clearly, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles don’t agree, with both signalling support for the policy before the conference.

New Matilda understands that in the meeting Tanya Plibersek made the case for not moving an amendment that would state the party’s clear opposition to turn backs.

While the room apparently favoured the amendment, the caucus did not bind on the matter, putting a victory on the conference floor out of reach.

Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles had some sweeteners to offer, with Shorten announcing in the morning a Labor Government would double the country’s humanitarian and refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025.

But that was not enough for many in the party, with president of the textile union Michele O’Neil, dressed in a red “don’t turn back” shirt, delivering a passionate rebuke of the turn back policy, rejecting the oft-stated line that asylum seeker currently in Indonesia are safe there.



“This is not a turn back boats policy. It’s a turn back desperate people seeking refuge policy,” she said.

In the end the ‘deaths at sea’ argument penetrated deep into this conference with senior Labor leaders framing their support for turn backs around the idea of stopping lives at sea being lost.

Labor’s last Immigration Minister Tony Burke told the conference 34 people had drowned – including a 10-week-old boy – making the crossing during his brief months in charge of the portfolio.

But at the end of the day another argument must have been in the mind of many of those Labor delegates who voted against the amendment against turn backs.

It was one that hardly went mentioned, but which NSW MP Matt Thistlethwaite obliquely referenced in his address.

“Delegates, this is an issue that has divided Labor for too long,” he told the crowd.

Other speakers angrily hit out at the idea the shift made Labor the philosophical or moral equivalent of Tony Abbott.

Yet in the mind of voters it certainly does, and with the electorate still overwhelming suspicious of refugees its Labor’s chances at the next election that surely moved many of those who raised their hands against the amendment moved today.



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