Human rights

Will changing its offshore detention policy cost Labor government?

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Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013, Melbourne (image by Takver / Flickr).

Only the Labor Party can put an end to mandatory offshore detention, writes Chris Mordd Richards.

The Labor Party introduced mandatory immigration detention 26 years ago, the Coalition turned it into mandatory offshore detention in 2001 and the Labor Party has kept it going ever since with the help of the Coalition.

Now it is up to the ALP to end this barbaric policy once and for all.

Asylum seeker advocate Adam Richards speaking to IA on his second "Walk for Refugees", said:

“The ALP is the Dr Frankenstein that created the monster of mandatory detention.”

The two major parties weren't always in lockstep on refugee policy. Although it was former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating who introduced mandatory detention in 1992, it was former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard who commenced the horror of indefinite mandatory offshore detention in 2001.

Ever since the early 1990s Labor and the Coalition have been in a race to the bottom with each other on asylum seeker policy. For a long time, the ALP stood for the rights of those less fortunate. However, over the last two decades, the ALP have shifted noticeably towards the right, especially on asylum seeker policy.

IA spoke to John Hargreaves, former ACT Minister for Multicultural Affairs and a State Labor Member of the Legislative Assembly of 14 years standing, about what the Labor Party is meant to stand for:

I believe absolutely in the fundamental ethos that the Labor Party has at its core but I also believe it has an enormous number of people who have never heard of it, contained within its ranks. The fundamental ethos of the Labor Party is that we look at somebody that is less well off than ourselves and we do something about it in the political spectrum. I am a big believer in the ethos that if somebody is needier than I am, I have to do something about it.

After the establishment of the Manus Island Detention Centre by Howard in 2001 – and later on Nauru as well – people (including children) were held in indefinitely in detention, living in conditions that were akin to psychological torture. When former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected to power in 2007, he moved to close the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres not long afterwards, doing so in 2008. For a brief period, it seemed like Labor might be edging closer back to it pre-1990s conscience on the fair treatment of asylum seekers — but that was not to be the case. Labor policy shifted even further to the right on the refugee issue, to align very closely with the Coalition's, under Julia Gillard, who replaced Rudd as prime minister.

At the end of 2010, Gillard re-opened the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres and put us back to where we are now. This was followed up by the "no advantage" policy, which ensured that people arriving on boats would be processed no faster than those applying in overseas processing centres for asylum here. This was done largely out of a fear of vastly increased numbers of potential asylum seekers wanting to make their way here, due to global unrest and strife at the time. Liberals under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott supported this policy when Labor introduced it — another example of the two major parties acting in lockstep on this issue.

When Rudd briefly regained the mantle of prime minister in 2013, he did allow a wide range of support agencies onto Manus Island and Nauru after signing a new agreement with both countries, which briefly moderately improved conditions there. Once Abbott won the election in 2013 and became PM, however, he removed all access to support agencies — a policy which his successor Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull maintains to this day.

Adam Richards told IA:

The Labor party of your Chifleys and Whitlams — that Labor Party is no more. The current Labor Party is blown by the winds of public opinion instead of actually standing for something — and the Liberal party is no better ... the terrible truth of it is, elections are won or lost by [very small] swings and the lowest common denominator in our community is wagging the dog — the tail is wagging the dog.It’s time our politicians started leading again.

I don’t think [Opposition Leader] Bill Shorten will do something until members of the Labor Party start handing in their bloody membership cards. This issue is literally about what sort of community we want to be and a community that tolerates mistreatment of children, that is not the community we want to be. The Labor Party rank and file have to stand up, and they have been gutless.

A 2015 IA article, titled 'How Labor Right sneaked turnbacks through National Conference', reported on how the Labor left was able to gain numerous concessions from the Labor right faction in exchange for not changing their boat turn-back policy at the time. As the article notes, ‘The reality is that Bill Shorten made the issue of allowing turn backs a key pillar of his leadership. It was an aggressive move.‘

Once again, this is an example of how the fear of media reporting and opinion polls result in lowest common denominator politics which ultimately keep such inhumane policies in place.

Chris Schmidt, the organiser for both of Adam Richards walks to Canberra for refugees, told Ithat he discussed Labor's policy stance with Penny Wong’s chief of staff after Adam’s first walk in 2017 and was told:

No one in the Labor Party is very comfortable with the current policy [on refugees] and what is happening. Our first step is to get elected and there is not broad community support for bringing them here. Therefore, we can't rock the boat as we have to get elected before we do anything.

Labor won’t adopt a socially responsible policy on refugees until it wins another election off the back of the human suffering and misery enabled by the current policy. On the face of it, that makes sense — you need to win elections to enact actual change after all, right? Well no, sorry it’s not that simple. That kind of position not only takes a rather dismissive view of what the average voter thinks or how our democratic system works but is increasingly out of step with the majority opinion on the issue. Labor is implying they can live with torturing refugees, albeit uncomfortably, as long as they win an election. Then they will (probably) stop torturing them afterwards.

So what can one do — apart from walking to Canberra in the summer heat as Adam Richards has done, twice, now? There have been endless protests, marches, lawful and unlawful actions around the country going back many years now and little has changed.

Until the next Federal election, we can call or write to all Labor MPs and Senators and ask them to change the policy.

We can also donate to and support agencies like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre who help send aid directly to those in offshore detention.

Mandatory detention and mandatory offshore detention have always been out of step with the core values of the Labor Party and it is long past time their elected representatives recognised that. They are the Party best positioned to bring to a close the terrible chapter in our history they started 26 years ago. The incredible abuse we have heaped on vulnerable people over the years needs to be atoned for and it would not be going too far to say a royal commission is needed.

As Adam Richards told IA:

"I’ll keep calling this out: this issue is this generation’s "stolen generation". I will not have it ever said when our kids look back and go, 'Mum and Dad, what did you do?' I’ll never ever let it be said that we all just stood back and did nothing."

We all need to keep calling this out and one day our children will hold us to account for what we did, as individuals and as a nation.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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