Counterfeit humanitarianism: Bill Shorten at Labor’s National Conference

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Bill Shorten speaking at the National Labor Conference in Adelaide (Screenshot via YouTube)

At the recent National Conference, Bill Shorten gave a speech on the current state of Labor's asylum seeker policy, yet his speech highlighted a number of flaws, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

CAN THEY NEVER LEAVE that dreaded, awful centre? The political debate in Australia, grotesquely massaged, its shapes and contours teased out to yield a monster, remains obsessed by the naval refugee. Arrive by boat and be damned, never to be permitted resettlement in Australia. This says much about the Australian character suggesting revenge in reverse: the first Western inhabitants – soldiers, screws, convicts – were made to come here to establish a treacherous and precarious outpost on the edge of the planet. Why should you have a choice to do so by vessel? 

To now see political figures twist the subject, inject it with a ghastly faux sense of humanity, makes one ache for the clear-sighted barbarities of Tony Abbott, a person whose cruel certitude remains that of a fanatic. His diseases and weaknesses are familiar to all. With Abbott, the human is an avatar, an inconvenient projection that mars the broader program of power. At heart, institutions count. So, turn back the boats, establish a network of brutal offshore processing camps and repel those with initiative and desperation who come to Australia by sea — a policy platform that Labor felt compelled to adopt in 2015.

Bill Shorten’s address at the National Conference in Adelaide on a range of subjects was that of a functionary, not a statesman. Despite his party being a good few streets in front of the governing Coalition, he remains a person with a “credibility gap”. His best bet is to focus on party policy.

What he suggested on refugee policy was more of the same, a hollow mimicry albeit couched in the language of compromise. 

To members of the party gathered at the annual state conference in Adelaide, he explained how:

“We understand that keeping our borders secure and keeping the people smugglers out of business should and has never meant leaving men, women and children to languish for years and years in indefinite detention in substandard facilities and unacceptable conditions.”

The gaping problem with that statement is twofold: first, that Labor was the party of offshore detention, wishing to inflict just that little bit of cruelty (Abbott jigged the machine and put it into overdrive). Second, that the people smuggling racket is an indispensable part of assisting individuals to advance their rights to seek asylum and refuge under the United Nations Refugee Convention. 

It is a fundamental point often lost on Australian lawmakers that you cannot see a smuggling racket as illegal simply because it is dangerous and exploitative.  Vicious they might be, but such individuals are simply extensions of an imperfect rights regime Canberra would rather do without.

Shorten demonstrates this point with all its confusions:

“It is not a crime to want to come to this country. But it is a crime to exploit vulnerable people to put them in dangerous and unsafe vessels and have them drown at sea.”

Demonised, the people smuggler’s product is also tarred and feathered, ignoring the evident and inconvenient point that both sides of the equation are indispensable to a broken system. But do not worry, Bill will make it a priority the moment he attains the Prime Ministership to take advice from the chief of the Australian Defence Force, the Home Affairs Department, ASIO and other relevant organisations to target the people smuggling system before any departures could be initiated. 

Shorten added:

“We cannot, we must not and we will not permit the reopening of their trade in human desperation and the drownings and the irreplaceable loss of life that it brings.”

Shorten’s approach is patchwork and inadequate — a plug here, a tag on there. Be tough yet compassionate to refugees and asylum seekers. Be ignorant of their causes while beefing up funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an effort to “speed up legitimate settlement pathways” to “deny people smugglers a product to sell”. 

Speed and efficiency become the criteria that permit offshore processing to continue. It was never intended, for instance, that destroying the smuggling market would mean “leaving women and children to languish for years and years in indefinite detention in sub-standard facilities and unacceptable conditions”.  Or that mental and physical health would suffer “under direct or indirect Australian care.”

Above all, Shorten insists on maintaining the illusion that there is a scheme, pattern and some order to the whole damn awful business. And when that fails, ask someone else to do it so that Australia does not become a soft target. (New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees that are Australia’s responsibility, for instance, will be seriously considered.)

The community-based refugee program will be increased from 1,000 to 5,000, an effort to pacify the Labor4Refugees group while also keeping the security-obsessed reactionaries in check.

“This means state and local governments, community organisations, businesses and unions and faith-based institutions will be able to sponsor humanitarian entrants into Australia and support the economic and social integration of refugees into the communities.”

And so it goes, a formula that attempts to show an advance on refugee policy with no reference to the Refugee Convention, when it is merely replicating the same deficiencies and flaws of the current system. The camps will continue to receive funding from Australian taxpayers, other countries will do the heavy lifting as they always have and the fundamental rationale that you should not come to Australia unless you do so appropriately, mindful of that all-holy queue, will prevail. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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