back to top

People Are Really Heartbroken Over Labor's New Asylum Seeker Policy

Delegates heckled as immigration spokesperson Richard Marles tried to explain Labor's new position on boat turnbacks.

Posted on

Labor immigration spokesperson Richard Marles faced down revolt from party members as he fielded questions about the proposal to turn around asylum seeker boats.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

Bill Shorten intends to include the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats, and double the current intake of refugees to 27,000.

It has split the party, with frontbencher Anthony Albanese among those on the party's left openly critical of the controversial border protection measure.

People packed into a small room to hear Marles speak at a fringe event that ended up revealing just how divisive asylum policy is for the party.

Alex Lee / BuzzFeed

Richard Marles, who first aired support for turnbacks on Q&A in October, argued that Labor had to admit that the Coalition's harsh policy was stopping people from dying at sea.

"Knowing that 1,200 people died and they aren't anymore, and then re-opening that route... Labor would be condemned by history," he said.

Sensing an angry crowd, the forum chair asked those present to conduct themselves with decorum and civility. But that didn't last long.

Marles: That human tragedy (deaths at sea) has ended. WE DONT KNOW THAT BECAUSE IT IS SECRET yells someone in the crowd #ALPConf2015

Tasmanian senator Lisa Singh spoke about her objection to turnbacks, arguing that asylum seekers had been demonised in Australia by conservative governments, but that Labor had to "find a better way" to stop people dying at sea.

.@Lisa_Singh says she disagrees with boat turnbacks and supports a regional framework #ALPConf2015

Queensland candidate Murray Watt also came out strongly against the proposal.

"Turning back boats returns people to conditions that are at best inhumane and at worst downright dangerous," he said. But Watt acknowledged that most people in Australia would disagree with that assessment.


A representative from Grandmothers Against The Detention Of Refugee Children was the first to challenge the immigration minister.

Alex Lee / BuzzFeed

"When would your government get women and children out of detention?" she asked.

Marles replied that while there were more children in detention under Labor, the coalition government keeps children in for longer.

Another questioner described the detention centres as "disasters" and asked Richard Marles to promise to close them.

Marles couldn't really commit to that, and said it was a complex policy issue.

Later he said "I don't think those 2,000 people [currently in detention on Manus Island and Nauru] can come to Australia."

There was an audible hiss from the crowd, with one woman shouting "Rubbish!"

But it was a question from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's Pamela Curr that proved most difficult for Richard Marles.

ASRC's Pam Curr: Somalian women living in community are being raped on Nauru night after night #ALPConf2015

"There is a reign of terror on Nauru against the unaccompanied Somali women who are living in the community. And every night they dread having invasions into their home. They are being raped night after night.

"Last night a Somali woman rang Australia begging for help, with three men bashing the door down armed with knives. What are you and the Labor Party going to do? " she asked.

Her reaction to Marles' response said it all.

Alex Lee / BuzzFeed

Marles' didn't address her question about how Labor would ensure the safety of women released into the community, choosing to speak instead about the government halting construction of accommodation on the island and warned against demonising the people of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

BuzzFeed News understands that despite the numbers being close, the left will not defeat Shorten on the floor of the conference, and the policy will pass.

Tracey Nearmy / AAPIMAGE

But if the furious reaction from Labor's grassroots members is anything to go by, tension over the controversial measure will continue long after the delegates have left the conference.