As founder and national director of Welcome to Australia my dream is that many thousands of refugees and other migrants arrive safely in Australia every year to be welcomed into a fair, diverse and inclusive society where they will live free from vilification, fear and prejudice.
For asylum seekers and refugees themselves, the greatest risk of Labor’s upcoming National Conference is not the danger of an imperfect chapter in the Platform. It is the danger of Labor failing to deliver real and practical outcomes to help ease their plight, while causing them to endure the real-world impact of re-energising the politics of fear and vilification of the world’s most vulnerable.
I do not believe this analysis should be dismissed as conceding the ideological argument to realpolitik. For as long as political leaders concentrate Australia’s attention on the irregular arrival of asylum seekers, asylum seekers will continue to suffer. The last fifteen years clearly demonstrate this truth.
If Australia were bereft of conservatives willing to politicise the approach of each boat to our shores, if there was no aligned media hungry to demonise the asylum seekers on them, the current political strategy of some advocates would be validated. The relevant Platform chapter could reflect an Australia where the electorate sees images of desperate people risking their lives at sea on the evening news and responds by asking their Government to rescue, care for and house them.
Unfortunately, the last 15 years of toxic debate have convinced Australians that “leaky boats” are a threat to our national security, that leadership is best measured in brutality and that people seeking our protection by crossing the ocean are of questionable integrity and intent. Measured public opinion demonstrates that 70% of Australians want us to continue our harsh deterrence policies – in fact, nearly a quarter of our community want us to increase our cruelty.
But there is another statistic worth our consideration. Research by the Scanlon Foundation indicates that 70% of Australians have a positive attitude towardsrefugees and this number is growing.
Put bluntly, for most Australian voters, refugees are welcome and the perception of porous borders is not. Or put another way, the public will not countenance any policy or proposition that appears to reopen the boat journey from Java to Christmas Island. This socio-political reality creates difficulties for any opposition and requires that Labor is strategic in its approach.
Labor party refugee advocates have a choice. To precipitate a fresh round of fear-mongering and vilification of asylum seekers, providing the politics of prejudice and division with new impetus, by authoring a perfect Platform chapter that will never become Government policy. Or to set aside the deep disappointment regarding the Labor Party’s record in this area and unite behind a framework that could not only be realised as the policy of Government, but would also change the lives of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees for the better. In other words, to choose an approach that keeps the public onside, delivers significant outcomes, and detoxifies the rancorous political debate around refugees.
Labor can be the one voice of progressive possibility – or another voice of progressive protest.
A successful and progressive Platform chapter on asylum seekers and refugees would achieve five primary outcomes – and remain durable in Government without abandoning them
1 ) Offer thousands more refugees the chance to belong and contribute to Australian society every year.
2 ) Protect the asylum seekers currently in our community and onshore and offshore detention centres from harm, providing them with real opportunities to work, study and prosper.
3 ) Neutralise a toxic, divisive and damaging public debate.
4 ) Open up the policy, political and social space required to effectively build a durable regional resettlement framework
5 ) Ensure excellence and effectiveness in Australia’s settlement services.
Such a policy is not only conceivable – it would the best possible outcome for asylum seekers, refugees and Australia’s national character and one that progressives must advocate for.
A truly compassionate Labor policy would immediately give people living on Bridging Visas the right to study and work and abolish Temporary Protection Visas; commit to transparent, independent oversight of all detention centres operated or funded by Australia; legislate for time limits on all forms of immigration detention; end the fast-tracking of asylum seeker claims; reinstate Government funded legal aid for asylum seekers; commit to closing the ocean route to Australia; and create a safe pathway to protection by increasing the humanitarian intake to 27 000 with a special focus on those displaced in our region.
Labor in government would have a real opportunity to transform the lives of countless thousands while maintaining the confidence of a population committed to“stopping the boats”.
It could be argued that there are more progressive policy positions. However, there are no more progressive possibilities. Labor’s National Conference can be used to demonstrate just how “perfect” it is when it comes to people seeking asylum, or can unite behind meaningful change in the right direction.