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Labor member and longtime IA contributor Matthew N. Donovan gets emotional about the change in Labor policy on boat turnbacks at the National Conference on Saturday 25/7/15 (Image via Buzzfeed / @MarkdiStef)

The decision by Labor’s National Conference on Saturday not to ban turning back asylum seeker boats has shocked, outraged and upset many members and supporters. And so it should. It puts Labor on the same moral dung heap as the Liberals.

However, we need to see this vote not as some shocking break with the past but as its logical outcome.

It was Paul Keating, together with left-wing Minister Gerry Hand, who introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers. A year later they made indefinite detention possible.

It was Kim Beazley in 2001 who stood four square with Howard on turning the Tampa back. Rather than neutralising the issue, Labor’s support boosted Howard and he won the election in a canter. And, of course, Rudd won in 2007 promising to be much less harsh on refugees, including ending the Howard's Pacific Solution.

Julia Gillard re-instated the "Pacific Solution" (ie. re-opened Manus and Nauru) and developed the regional solution. It was the second Rudd administration that ruled no asylum-seeker arriving by boat would be resettled in Australia. Now, as part of the ongoing stampede to the right, a future Labor government will support turning back asylum seeker boats.

All of these actions opened the door for the Liberals to preach and implement a more inhumane response and shift the debate to the right. Labor politicians, despite opposition from members and a sizeable section of Labor voters, then followed the Liberals down the path they had set for both parties, instead of leading opposition to scapegoating and demonisation.

There will not only be turnbacks under a Shorten Government. The concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru will continue.

Labor heavyweights offered some concessions to win support for turning back desperate people fleeing persecution, war, rape, death, imprisonment or torture. They will, by 2025, have increased the refugee intake to 27,500 from its current 13500 under the Abbott government. First, why can’t this be done immediately? I’ll tell you why. Because Shorten et all have no intention of implementing it. If you think that in ten years they will increase the intake to that figure I have a bridge in Sydney to sell you.

Second, there are upwards of 50 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in the world. The figure Labor is talking about, 27500, is a drop in the ocean.

Third, under Labor, the figure for refugee places was 20,000, before Abbott cut it. So what Shorten is proposing is to increase that 2010 figure by 7,500 over the 15 years from then. Hardly magnanimous.

The strategy the Labor leadership is adopting here with supposed "sweeteners", like increasing the refugee intake, is like putting lipstick on a pig.

In the 1970s and 1980s, 2,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived by boat. The other about 90,000 arrived at Mascot Airport. We sent Immigration officials to transit countries to quickly process them and bring them to Australia. We could of course do the same again.

Those asylum seekers currently in refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia for example will continue to languish there. Estimates are that on average it will take over 100 years for an asylum claim to be heard, processed and accepted and for the refugee to find a home in a country that recognises the Refugee Convention.

Turn-backs do not save lives. They merely outsource the possibility of death to other countries. Quick but thorough Australian processing in transit countries, as well as being cheaper than the billions wasted on border forces and offshore and onshore concentration camps, would save all the lives at risk at sea.

If Labor (and their twins in the Liberal Party) were really concerned about the lives of asylum seekers, you’d think they’d be enquiring about what has happened to those turned back, or those rotting in camps in Malaysia or Indonesia, or even what is happening to the kids locked up indefinitely in our camps on Manus Island and Nauru for no crime whatsoever. But politicians aren’t asking about their welfare. Instead Labor and the Liberals have united to pass legislation to gaol doctors and nurses who report on the real situation on Manus and Nauru, including reporting on the abuse of children.

But not to worry. Labor has promised to spend more on addressing mental health problems in Australia’s offshore concentration camps. That might seem generous to someone who is easily fooled. However given that the detention centres are the cause of the mental health problems, closing them down would solve the problem.

This is a truncated version of a longer piece on John Passant's blog En Passant on 25/7/15 under the title 'A letter to disillusioned Labor Party supporters', which has been republished with permission. To read the full version click here.

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