In recent years, there have been few issues that have so consumed Australian public debate as our treatment of asylum seekers.
It was therefore not surprising that asylum seekers were the focus of one of the main debates at this year’s ALP National Conference. That debate, and the resulting ALP policy, produced mixed feelings for supporters of a more humane policy towards asylum seekers.
There were undoubtedly disappointments, with Conference failing to support motions opposing boat turnbacks and offshore processing. The overwhelming majority of Left delegates opposed turnbacks, on the basis they provoke our regional neighbours, when we need their cooperation to resettle asylum seekers in an orderly way. We also argued that offshore processing could not be undertaken humanely, and should therefore cease as soon as possible. Unfortunately, these motions were defeated, principally due to the opposition of the National Right faction.
Despite our disappointment, we should recognise the significant wins achieved at Conference. These now form part of Labor’s new policy for the next Federal election, and include:
- doubling Australia’s refugee intake to 27,000 a year by 2025;
- providing $450 million over three years to help the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;
- abolishing Tony Abbott’s Temporary Protection Visas;
- implementing independent oversight of all Australian-funded processing facilities;
- establishing an independent children’s advocate and removing children from detention as quickly as possible;
- imposing mandatory reporting of any child abuse in immigration facilities; and
- preserving whistle-blower protections for people working in those facilities.
These are big, hard-fought gains, and would not have happened without sustained lobbying by Left members, Labor for Refugees and refugee advocates in the broader community. By taking these issues up, we have shown the community that there remains a strong voice for human rights inside Labor, and we have helped Labor deliver a policy that clearly differentiates us from Tony Abbott’s punitive approach.
This policy area will undoubtedly remain difficult for the next Labor Government. It is crucial that we keep pressing for a solution built on respect for human rights and regional cooperation, not just the big stick of deterrence.
Equally important is the need to shift community opinion. While the majority of Australians support tougher policies, the temptation to give in will remain. There are already positive signs of change, with an April 2015 poll by Essential Media showing that 49% of Australians believed that “asylum seekers arriving by boat should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be genuine refugees”. Given that, in recent years, about 90% of boat arrivals were found to be refugees, we should be confident that we can win community support for the humane approach that so many of us want to see in the years ahead.
As world conflicts and climate change create more asylum seekers than ever before, let’s make sure that progressive people in Labor keep up the fight to change the conversation on this incredibly important issue.
Murray Watt is the lead candidate for Labor’s Senate ticket at the next Federal election. As a lawyer, he has represented many Australian-born asylum seeker children.