Labor’s refugee shame ten years on—End offshore detention

The last ten years of the Australian government’s punitive policies and abuse of refugee rights are bookended by Labor governments: 19 July 2023 marks the tenth year of offshore detention, introduced by the Rudd Labor government.

In 2013, Kevin Rudd was running scared of Tony Abbott’s Liberal opposition, which was running its election campaign on stopping asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Labor is still running scared.

Many of the same people responsible for Labor implementing the worst aspects of offshore detention are now key players in the current Albanese government.

In August 2012, Anthony Albanese was a senior minister in Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government when Nauru and Manus Island offshore detention centres were re-opened. Albanese was deputy to Kevin Rudd when he announced the PNG deal and the ban on refugees ever resettling in Australia a year later.

Tanya Plibersek, now Environment Minister, was the minister for health in both the Gillard and Rudd governments.

Chris Bowen, now Minister for Climate Change, was Immigration Minister under Gillard. Richard Marles, now deputy prime minister, was the Labor MP who Rudd relied on to negotiate the resettlement deal with PNG in 2013.

Tony Burke, now Minister for Employment, was the immigration minister who oversaw the PNG deal.

Albanese, who had strongly opposed turning back asylum boats at the Labor conference in 2015, subsequently back-flipped in 2018, as did Tanya Plibersek.

There will be another attempt to overturn Labor’s support for offshore detention and turnbacks at Labor’s national conference in August this year. Given Labor’s record, no-one expects this attempt will be successful.

In any case, it is a fundamental flaw that Labor policy is not binding on Labor parliamentarians. It means that Labor parliamentarians can ignore their own rank and file, and ensure that the opinion of their membership or Labor voters is always subordinate to the whims of members of parliament.

So Labor in power has ignored Labor policy to abolish Scott Morrison’s fast track refugee determination process that has seen 12,000 people rejected.

A lot of attention will be focussed on Andrew Giles, the left faction Labor MP who previously has voted to oppose both turnbacks and offshore detention. Giles is now Minister for Immigration in a government that already has a $422 million contract with US company, MTC, to keep Nauru open and ensure that any future boat arrivals can be sent offshore.

The “Australian Solution” is the example that conservative British PM, Rishi Sunak, wants to emulate as he attempts to expel asylum seekers arriving in Britain by boat to Rwanda.

Stranded in PNG

With the last refugee being brought to Australia from Nauru, the refugee movement is now focussed on those still being held in PNG. Five refugees were transferred to New Zealand in early July, leaving around 77 with an uncertain future. Many of them are badly scarred physically and mentally from the torture they suffered on Manus Island. Around 16 of the refugees are too ill to engage with the UNHCR or any other refugee authorities and need urgent evacuation.

A number of the refugees who have been accepted for resettlement in Canada are being rejected at their final interview. Around 500 of those who were sent offshore have no secure resettlement future.

So far, Labor is refusing to transfer any of the refugees left in PNG to Australia, maintaining the Morrison line that PNG has sole responsibility for those that were dumped there.

But successive Labor and Liberal governments had also insisted that refugees on Nauru would never be brought to Australia. Although we still need to win the right of all the offshore refugees to settle permanently in Australia, relentless campaigning has brought them all off Nauru.

Labor oft-repeated glib slogan that it can be “hard on border protection without being weak on humanity”, is a lie. Labor is weak on humanity.

The “Ten Years Too Bloody Long” protests around Australia marking the tenth anniversary of offshore detention are the kind of protests that can fight Labor’s border protection polices, get everyone out of PNG, end offshore detention and win permanent visas for those rejected by fast track.

By Ian Rintoul


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