In the run-up to the ALP national conference, the question of whether there will be a push for Labor to support the turnback of asylum boats looms large.

Labor’s Immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is now more-or-less openly advocating turnbacks. His constant refrain that “Labor will not allow boat journeys between Java and Christmas Island to recommence”, is code for turnbacks.

Right-wing Labor frontbencher, Joel Fitzgibbon, has openly proposed that Labor embrace Abbott’s turnback policy, and has told SkyNews, “Personally I believe turnbacks will remain part of Labor policy.”

Both the ACTU and Labor for Refugees have taken a clear stand against both turnbacks and offshore processing. But sections of the refugee movement have begun arguing for Labor to pragmatically accept that offshore processing and turnbacks are part of the new paradigm now irrevocably established by the Liberals.

While the rot started with the publication of the Centre for Policy Development’s “Beyond the Boats” report in November last year, “Welcome to Australia” director and ALP “Left” conference delegate Brad Chilcott has been leading the charge recently, saying the issue of boats must be “neutralised” if Labor is to win the next election.

On 3 July, after a backlash from across the refugee sector, including the Refugee Council of Australia, Chilcott had to admit that turnbacks were not Welcome to Australia policy. Yet, he still defensively peddled his argument to Welcome to Australia members, “It is clear that neither major political party will allow the re-opening of the boat journey from Java to Christmas Island…History, polling and other research show us that the public will not tolerate the perception of uncontrolled borders.”

Chilcott argues that by accepting turnbacks and offshore detention, Labor will be open to other “achievable” demands, such as “transparent, independent oversight of all detention centres operated or funded by Australia”. It is a joke.

The director of GetUp, Sam Mclean had indicated his support for Chilcott but he abruptly resigned a few days later.

The Australian National Church Task Force seems set to reject the Chilcott proposal in its vote in late July.

But Clive Hamilton, academic and former Greens candidate, has bought the argument hook, line and sinker. He says that refugees will have to be sacrificed for climate change: “…if Labor is to win the next election and put Australia back on the path towards a sensible climate policy, then it must match the Coalition in promising to maintain the ruthless treatment of asylum seekers”.

No concessions

The argument is toxic and self-defeating. Every concession simply consolidates the xenophobic refugee bashing that underpins Abbott’s policies.

The way is open for a major debate at the Labor conference.

The national Left delegates are meeting on 23 July, the day before the conference starts, to finalise the Left’s position.

But breaking the bi-partisan support for offshore processing and mandatory detention remains a strategic goal of the refugee movement. Some reports indicate the numbers are closer at this year’s conference than in other years. It would be fantastic if the Labor for Refugees resolution won on the floor of conference; but that might be too much to expect.

Major Left MPs like Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin and Martin Ferguson voted with the Right in 2004. And the parliamentary party has been willing to ignore party policy against offshore processing in the past.

But pushing the debate into the floor of the Labor conference is one part of the refugee movement driving the refugee issue onto the mainstream political agenda. That would not have been possible without the rallies and protests and an orientation on winning the unions.

Chilcott says that Labor must ditch refugees to be electable. That is not true—despite John Howard’s Tampa victory, between 2001 and 2004, support for asylum boats being allowed to land rose from 47 per cent to 61 per cent. Rudd was elected in 2007 on a policy of ending the Pacific Solution. Even recent focus group studies of two marginal Queensland seats (Bonner and Longman) have shown that a pro-asylum policy would not effect whether people voted Labor.

But more and more refugee supporters recognise that it is far better to have a Labor Party with a pro-refugee policy than to have Labor elected with an anti-refugee policy.

Most importantly, holding the rally outside the conference is part of winning Labor members and Labor voters to the need to actively campaign for refugees in spite of the electoral opportunism of the Labor leaders.

By Mark Goudkamp

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