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Raw Emotions Were On Display As The Labor Party Finally Made A Call On Boat Turnbacks

The decision to turn back boats exposed deep fractures in the ALP. Here's how the vote went down.

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The Labor Party is meeting in Melbourne to make decisions on its policy platform. On Saturday, it had a vote about immigration and asylum seekers.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

Immigration policy has proven to be a very complex one for Labor in the past, with strongly held views on either side. So when it came to the vote, things got emotional pretty quickly.

If you've just tuned in to the spectacle that is an ALP conference, here's how these votes work.


Labor members draft amendments to the current policy document (the national platform). Then they get a chance to argue their case in front of everyone at the conference. Someone else seconds the motion. Someone who disagrees gets to speak against the amendment and then it goes to a vote.

The amendment that has really split Labor's left and right factions is the case of whether they should turn back asylum seeker boats. It's a bit confusing, because the amendment is to ban turnbacks, as opposed to an amendment to add turnbacks to the platform. Ok let's get into it.

But he was interrupted by a group of rowdy protesters who ran in from the back of the room and stormed the stage.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

"YOU FUCKING RACISTS!" Yelled a protester at the back of the room.


People in the crowd booed at the protesters, who probably weren't from the Labor party. (Bit too scruffy looking, not wearing bright red t-shirts, etc)

People scream from the back as asylum seeker debate begins #ALPConf2015

Chair Mark Butler regains control and tells people to show some respect, given that Labor is the ONLY party to have their debates in public.

He gets a very long standing ovation for saying that and everyone feels very proud of themselves for being in the ALP. They give themselves a few extra claps and then sit down.

Andrew Giles gets back up. He says he agrees with all the other amendments shadow immigration minister Richard Marles has put forward, but not boat turnbacks.

Tracey Nearmy / AAP

He even said at one point in his speech that he thinks Richard Marles is doing a great job. It was kind of strange to see the opposing sides be so nice to each other.

Then it was Richard Marles' turn to speak against the amendment. He said Labor needs the full suite of measures to keep the journey to Australia shut.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

"This does not make Labor the same as the coalition," he assured the crowd.

"YES IT DOES!" yelled back someone in the nosebleed section.

Queensland Labor candidate Murray Watt thinks the party should dump offshore processing and put forward a different amendment:

ALP / BuzzFeed

When it came to a vote later on, the delegates would vote down Watt's amendment.


Tony Burke spoke about his troubling time as Labor's last immigration minister. His voice trembles as he tells the room how 33 people died under his watch trying to get to Australia and told the story of how he tried to find the name of a baby who died.

Tracey Nearmy / AAP

He said all he wants is for "everyone to get here safely." Turning back the boats has meant that there have been no deaths at sea. This is why he is voting against the amendment.

There are other amendments and speakers for and against. Union secretary Michele O'Neil said the previous Labor government failed by not changing the public's fear of asylum seekers.

.@MicheleONeilTCF speaking against turnbacks "Great leaders take on hard issues and move public opinion” #ALPConf2015

Labor leader Bill Shorten said that it would have been easier for him to not have brought the issue up at all, but that it had to be done.

Bill Shorten: If every country did what we are proposing the world would be a better place #ALPConf2015

“I thought, is there an easy way, that I did not have to give this speech, but I would not be the leader I seek to be if I ignored my own personal conviction on this matter,” he said.

With all the speeches done, it was time to vote by yelling out "aye" or "no". It is exactly as scientific as it sounds. Mark Butler said the "no" yellers were loudest, and so the boats amendment was defeated.


But people weren't happy and called for the more scientific "hands up"counting method. People had to show their delegate cards to make sure they weren't imposters or something. For such a huge issue, it seems weird that Butler didn't do a full count, which means we'll never know the actual numbers.

One thing we do know is that three very senior Labor figures from the party's left faction were very pissed off.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

Shorten's leadership rival Anthony Albanese voted in favour of the amendment. Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek were on the same side as Albanese but voted through proxies so it wouldn't look like they were defying Bill Shorten.

EVEN THOUGH THEY TOTALLY WERE. (It's like wearing one of those tiny eye masks to a ball and thinking that you're totally in disguise.)

So Labor has the same asylum seeker policy as the coalition now?

Paramount Pictures

Boy do they not want you think that.

Of course, it's not just about the boats. Labor passed motions to abolish temporary protection visas, double the current intake of refugees to 27,000 each year, set up an independent monitor for children in detention, protect LGBTI asylum seekers, restore the UN Refugees Convention in domestic law, and speed up processing asylum claims.

But regardless of whether Labor or the coalition wins the next election, both parties will pick up boats containing asylum seekers from Indonesia and turn them back and both parties will send people to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

And that's where Australia is on asylum seekers right now.

Simple, right?

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

Contact Alex Lee at

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