Posted on 23 Jul 2015

    The Harsh Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Is One Thing Labor And The Liberals Can Agree On

    How Paul Keating's "temporary" and "last resort" policy became a long-lasting legacy and central tenet of the Labor Party.

    At this weekend's ALP conference, Labor leader Bill Shorten will make a huge announcement on asylum policy: A Labor government will turn back the boats.

    Stefan Postles / Getty Images

    It's a move that will see Labor draw closer to the Coalition government than ever before, and will also enrage a lot of people in the party's left.

    Bill Shorten told ABC's 7:30 program on Wednesday night that he wanted to turn back the boats to stop deaths at sea.

    "Why is Labor finally agreeing to turn back the boats?" Leigh Sales asked.

    "Because Labor wants to defeat the people smugglers and we want to prevent drownings at sea. And therefore one of the options which we believe has to be on the table, if we're given the privilege of forming a government, has to be the option to turn back boats."

    It's a real turnaround on boat turnarounds from Shorten, who was asked in October last year whether turnbacks were stopping deaths at sea.

    His reply?

    “No. We don’t see that the argument’s been made or the evidence has been made out about boat turnbacks. Labor’s policy hasn’t changed.’’

    It was Labor prime minister Paul Keating who first introduced the idea of mandatory detention for unauthorised arrivals in 1992.

    The idea of mandatory detention had bipartisan support and was initially pitched as a temporary measure to deal with the specific issue of a group of Indochinese asylum seekers fleeing the Vietnam war.

    23 years later, and mandatory detention is still a key part of Labor and the Liberal party's immigration policy.

    But it was John Howard who would first turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers. In 2001, Labor was in opposition, and supported the introduction of offshore processing by Liberal prime minister John Howard.

    Torsten Blackwood / Getty Images

    It was triggered by what became known as the 'Tampa affair', when Australia refused to accept a Norweigan freighter that had rescued a boatload of asylum seekers.

    Days later, Howard introduced the Pacific Solution. It included cutting out Pacific islands from Australian territory, putting asylum seekers in detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and intercepting asylum seeker boats and towing them back to Indonesian waters.

    The policy was popular with voters and is credited with much of the Howard government's electoral success at the 2001 and 2004 elections. Labor was wedged, torn between the moral compassion of the party's left and the pragmatism of the right.

    "You'd turn them back... Deterrence is effective through the detention system but also your preparedness to take appropriate action as the vessels approach Australian waters on the high seas."

    In 2008, a newly-elected prime minister Rudd fulfilled an election promise to end Howard's Pacific Solution.

    Anthony Devlin / Getty Images

    The Rudd government announced the closure of detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, resettled the remaining 21 asylum seekers on Nauru in Australia, and ended temporary protection visas, granting permanent protection for refugees.

    "Detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time," promised immigration minister Chris Evans in 2008.

    Despite this, long-term mandatory detention for asylum seekers in Australian centres and on Christmas Island remained in place under the Rudd government.

    In 2010, faced with a massive increase in boat arrivals and overcrowded detention centres, the Rudd government temporarily suspended processing of new asylum claims for people from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

    Oscar Siagian / Getty Images

    In 2010, as more and more boats arrived, Julia Gillard took the Labor leadership from Kevin Rudd and announced that she would bring back offshore processing.

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    The issue was one of several that were dragging down the Labor government's polling numbers, and Gillard new that something needed to be done.

    She wanted to bring back regional processing centres, and also expanded the network of detention centres in Australia, as well as community detention.

    In an interview in 2015, Gillard said her government never turned back boats.

    "We didn't have the same policy about turning boats around, so no," she said.

    In 2011, Julia Gillard signed the Malaysia Solution, that was to see 800 asylum seekers who arrived by boat sent to Malaysia in exchange for the resettlement of 4000 refugees from Malaysia in Australia.

    Saul Loeb / Getty Images

    But in August, the High Court ruled that the deal with Malaysia was illegal, because Australia could not guarantee the safety of the people returned there.

    Instead, the Gillard government set about securing offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island.

    Later in 2011, the Gillard government introduced a "no advantage" principle for boat arrivals.

    This meant that asylum seekers who had arrived by boat and were released from detention into the community were subject to strict visa conditions, including not being allowed to work. It was criticised for potentially creating a new subclass of people in Australia.

    In 2012, the Gillard government started sending asylum seekers who arrived by boat to Manus Island and Nauru.

    Refugee Action Coalition

    This included children, who were removed in 2013, when the immigration department found that conditions at the detention centre were damaging to children.

    Then, the entire continent of Australia was excised from the migration zone, meaning that any boats that managed to arrive on the mainland could be sent to Manus Island and Nauru. It was a policy backflip for Labor, who rejected the idea when Howard proposed it in 2006 . At the time Labor's Chris Bowen described it as "a stain on our national character" but as immigration minister said that he had changed his mind in order to save lives.

    In 2013, when Kevin Rudd came back to power, he slammed opposition leader Tony Abbott for promising to turn back the boats, saying that it would cause diplomatic conflict with Indonesia.

    Ishara S.kodikara / Getty Images

    Heavily criticised by the opposition for his "soft" immigration policy the first time round, Kevin Rudd announced a series of hard-line deterrence measures. He signed a deal that meant asylum seekers that had arrived by boat but were then found to be refugees would be resettled in Papua New Guinea.

    “From now on, any asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” he said.

    Those who didn't get refugee status would be sent back to their home country.

    According to the Monash Australian Border Deaths Database, 862 people died trying to get to Australia, under Labor from 2008 - 2013, compared to 363 deaths at sea under the previous Liberal government.

    Since the 2013 election, Labor under Bill Shorten has helped the government pass emergency legislation closing a loophole that made offshore processing illegal and dropped any reference to non-refoulement from the party's national platform.

    Stefan Postles / Getty Images

    In a speech to the ALP National Conference this weekend, refugee advocate and lawyer Julian Burnside will tell the party "the only difference between the two major parties is this: the Coalition mistreat boat people and boasts about it; Labor would mistreat boat people, but is ashamed of it."

    As the ALP draws ever closer to the right on this issue, there will be many on the party's left who will agree with Burnside's assessment.

    And so we come to today, as Shorten enters the ALP conference he may be entering the most dangerous period of his leadership.

    Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

    His chief rival for the job, the left's Anthony Albanese, has signalled he's unhappy with the new policy of boat turnarounds and has left the door open to opposing it at this weekend's conference.

    "I think that it is absolutely critical that we always remember our need for compassion and to not appeal to the darker side," he said in a speech on Thursday evening.

    If the left rebels and Shorten is defeated, it will leave him permanently weakened as a leader and vulnerable to government claims that only the Coalition can stop the boats.

    Ahead of an election that may be called before the end of the year, a humiliating defeat for Shorten may well make him unelectable. If that's the case, he'll just be the latest in a long line of Labor leaders destroyed by the party's inability to deal with aslyum seekers arriving on our shores in leaky boats.

    Alexandra Lee is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

    Contact Alex Lee at

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