Labor’s ‘turn back boats’ option: let’s keep more humane options

By Fr Maurizio Pettena, Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) National DirectorACMRO

In the current debate on how to stop boat arrivals, the question to consider is how should Australia respond?

In the past week, the Australian Labor Leader has stated that: “One of the options which we believe has to be on the table, if we are given the privilege of forming Government, has to be the option to turn back boats”. And he went further saying that this is an admission “that mistakes were made when Labor was last in Government”. In all fairness, I must also note that he spoke of doubling Australia’s annual intake of legally registered refugees to 27,000: a drop in the ocean if we compare this which is presented as a most generous policy, to the annual intake of other countries.

This is no surprise. If what is at stake is the “privilege of forming Government” and gaining power rather than the moral responsibility to answer to the plight of the most vulnerable, then this becomes a ‘game’ between two players contending the crown of victory. The other contender is Prime Minister Tony Abbott who recently announced the appointment of inaugural Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg at the same time as the Border Protection Act came into place. Mr Abbott welcomed this appointment emphatically: “I congratulate Commissioner Quaedvlieg and all the personnel being sworn in today as the founders of the Australian Border Force.”

Both Labor and Liberal are acting upon the conviction that the majority of the Australian voters will commit the “privilege of forming Government” on the condition that boats are sent back. This conviction is supported by a number of national polls. According to the Lowy Institute Poll 2014, 71 per cent of Australians agree that the government should turn back boats when safe to do so, thus showing a strong endorsement of the Government’s “Sovereign Borders” policy. Another 2014 nationwide opinion poll by UMR Research shows that 59 per cent of people think most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees. A strong majority of Australians, 60 per cent, also want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

I am comforted by the fact that the Leader of the Australian Labor Party stated that “ONE of the options […] is to turn back boats” for the reason that he may well be thinking of ‘OTHER options’, though he does not expand on what other options there might be.

No doubt there are other options such as to uphold Australia’s international legal obligations to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, eliminate mandatory detention, overturn policies which deny asylum seekers the legal right to apply for a valid visa and provide permanent protection visas to successful applicants.

Today this policy position is looked upon as a threat to national security. However, both Labor and Liberal had this same policy just few decades ago. In fact the Liberal Government of Robert Menzies was instrumental in helping to draft the 1951 Refugee Convention and Australia was one of the first signatories.

Let us then keep our options open!

Originally published in the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) July 2015 e-newsletter – sign up to receive your monthly update.