Labor Silent On Increase In Syrian Refugees. Wait, What? Libs Support It? Labor Supports Increase In Syrian Refugees.


It must be a terrifying thing to be a Labor official these days.

At one time in the party’s long, proud history, its politicians used to know what their policies were by virtue of the fact they thrashed these things out at national conferences and party room brainstorming sessions.

But in the heady days of ‘we might get elected to government soon, we just need to be disciplined and have no policies on anything’, the process is a lot more uncertain, and chaotic.

Now the Labor Party is forced to wait until the Prime Minister settles on a position, before they know what their own policy is.

We saw it recently when Bill Shorten backed ‘Operation Border Farce’ in Melbourne, before condemning it a few hours later – in the strongest possible terms, no less – once it was clear Tony Abbott also thought it was a bad idea. This stunning read from Michael Brull is worth a read if you haven’t already.

And we saw it again over the weekend, this time over Syrian refugees.

The issue, of course, rocketed through the news charts amid a global outpouring of grief and anger at the images of the bodies of Syrian refugees washing up on a beach in Turkey, including three-year-old Aylan Kurdi.

Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, aged 3, pictured in happier times.
Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, aged 3, pictured in happier times.

After Germany announced it would take in 800,000 Syrian refugees, the Sydney Morning Herald, decided to pin the major parties in Australia down on their position. And who better to ask on the Labor side than the current national president, Mark Butler.

“Labor frontbencher Mark Butler refused to say whether or not the opposition supported an increase in refugee numbers,” the Herald reported.

“There’s an appropriate way to deal with that crisis and that’s through the UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency],” Mr Butler said.

Which is a pretty gutless response – official Labor Party policy, which emerged from the ALP’s national conference in Melbourne – was to double Australia’s refugee intake.

Interestingly, the same Herald article also sought comment from a senior Abbott Government figure, who supported an increase.

“Trade Minister Andrew Robb has added his support to calls for the federal government to take more asylum seekers fleeing Syria.

“Mr Robb said on Sunday he would “absolutely support” an increase in the number of Syrians being accepted by Australia.”

Oh, right. Okay. The Libs want to increase the numbers, so Labor is free to want to increase the numbers as well. Phew.

Cue Labor’s slight tweak to its public statements.

Late that evening, another Herald appeared, under the headline ‘Australia ready to take more refugees from Syria, Tony Abbott says’. Now that it was safe, Bill Shorten crawled out from under his rock.

“Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also joined calls for an increase in the number of Syrian refugees.

“Labor believes that we can take more refugees in Australia. We should also be providing greater resources to the United Nations Commission for Refugees,” Mr Shorten said.”

Shorten decided it was also time to ‘connect with the masses’ and express his own sympathy and grief for Syrians, in particular the family of Aylan Kurdi, telling the ABC that everyone had seen the distressing images of the “little girl” washing up on a beach in Europe.

It remains unclear whether Shorten just fluffed his faux sympathy – Aylan Kurdi, of course, was a little boy – or whether it’s official Liberal Party policy that Aylan be referred to as female.

As an interesting aside, here’s a video of Mark Butler at that very ALP national conference in which they decided to double their refugee intake, explaining to his party the way forward.

“We need a compelling, alternative vision for the nation, not a small target strategy that seeks to coast into government on the back of the fact that Tony Abbott is about as popular as European Carp,” Butler told supporters.

I’m not sure the Liberal Party would agree.


Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.