Calling on Shorten to stand on principle

As the PM faces problems over picks, the Opposition Leader needs to fix inconsistencies in what Labor’s platform says, and what Labor does, over people seeking asylum in Australia.

Calling on Shorten to stand on principle

By Jon Stanhope*

The imminent release of the Human Rights Commission Report on children in detention provides an obvious and appropriate opportunity for Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to redeem the Party’s reputation and standing on human rights and asylum seekers.

It’s a chance to clear a large and rancid barnacle from Labor’s own blighted hull.

The federal election is next year. Labor cannot continue to play dead on asylum seeker policy all the way to the election. No amount of “no comment” or of wishing the issue away by Shorten, Richard Marles or indeed every member of the caucus, will save the ALP from having to say at some point where it now stands on asylum seeker policy and refugees.

In recent days the asylum seekers transported to Manus Island have begun a mass protest with many engaging in self harm. An Iranian asylum seeker who has been on an extended hunger strike in mainland detention is reported to be gravely ill. Fears are held for his life.

The children in detention report presented by the Human Rights Commission to the government some months ago is required to be released within 15 sitting days of its transmission. Time will be up in February, this month.

AHRC illustration
AHRC illustration

Each of these events is relevant to all Australians but they have a particular pertinence for the ALP and its members. And of course all the asylum seekers caught up in them is a subject – or put more bluntly, a victim – of policies devised and first put in place by a Labor Government.

When we see images of the current strife at Manus, or hear the latest news of the man moving inexorably towards death, or when we read in the days to come the children in detention report, we all are confronted by a question about the responsibility we accept for these events or outcomes.

The report on children in detention will certainly be confronting. I imagine it will, in light of what we already know of the impact of arbitrary and indefinite incarceration of children, especially in isolated, remote and desolate detention camps, be deeply distressing. If the report, as I assume it will, contains detail of the nature of the harm that we as a nation have knowingly done to these children, it will be painful to read. I doubt there will be a rush to accept responsibility.

All of the children who were in detention on Christmas Island during the inquiry, on which the report is based, were confined there between July and September 2013 at the direction of the then Labor Government.

That the current Liberal Government has enthusiastically embraced and maintained Labor’s policy of indefinite offshore detention of children does not assuage the embarrassment, responsibility and distress that I and legions of Labor Party members experience, or at least should be experiencing, as a consequence of Labor’s implementation of these policies. This is particularly the case because they are policies that are in clear breach of both Labor’s National Platform and the beliefs and values that the platform articulates.

Shorten could, and I think should, anticipate the release of the children in detention report, which will in effect be a critique of the impact of Labor policy on asylum seeker children, by reaffirming, on behalf of the ALP, its commitment to the values and beliefs that underpin the National Platform.

In reaffirming and explaining what Labor stands for, Shorten cannot, of course, not acknowledge and accept full responsibility for whatever findings are contained in the children in detention report.

The current platform contains a range of commitments to which Shorten could consider recommitting a new Labor Government. A review of just a few of the dozens of commitments which the ALP maintains in its platform on asylum seeker policy shows the extent to which the current platform has been abandoned.

For instance, clause 149 provides that a Labor Government will ensure that applications for refugee status are processed speedily, fairly and impartially based on individual merits. Clause 150 affirms Labor’s commitment to Australia’s international protection obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Clause 154 explicitly recognises that asylum seekers who leave a country in perilous circumstances have the right under the Refugee Convention to determine their means of departure.

Clause 157 provides that: “Labor recognises that, under the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers have the right to seek protection and asylum” and: “Labor will ensure that asylum seekers who arrive by irregular means will not be punished for their mode of arrival.”

In a direct contradiction of aspects of the current offshore processing arrangements, clause 160 asserts that Labor believes that protection visa applications made in Australia should be assessed by Australians on Australian territory.

Clause 168 states unequivocally that: “children will not be detained in an immigration detention centre and wherever appropriate will be released on a bridging visa.”

The clause continues by declaring: “detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable and the length and conditions of detention, including appropriateness of both accommodation and the services provided, will be subject to regular review.”

Clause 168 also provides that: “detention in an immigration detention centre is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.”

The ALP’s next national conference is scheduled for the middle of 2015. One assumes the conference will be giving consideration to the Labor Party’s asylum seeker policy. As it currently reads the platform is a nonsense in that it bears no resemblance to what the latest Labor Governments have actually done while in office or of what we now understand the policy to be.

It is inconceivable to me, however, that the platform could, consistent with Labor’s “beliefs and values”, be rewritten at the conference to reflect the grab bag of policies which were cobbled together as the immediate past Labor Government disintegrated.

I simply cannot see, say, Tanya Plibersek or John Faulkner, rising to second a motion from Anthony Albanese, that to ensure consistency with the policy implemented by the Rudd/Albanese Government, that the proscription on the detention of children contained in clause 168 of the platform be deleted and that the clause be amended to provide that not only does Labor support the detention of children but that it is consistent with Labor values and beliefs that they be subjected to arbitrary and indefinite detention in detention centres in foreign countries.

Shorten has an opportunity, in responding to current events and the children in detention report, to pre-empt even the possibility of conference delegates being asked to either endorse the current wholesale breaches of the platform by successive Labor Immigration Ministers and Governments, or in fact to abandon those aspects of the platform that are consistent with the beliefs and thinking of a majority of Labor members.

The platform provides in Clause 157 that “Labor will lead debate on the new agreements and understandings required to ensure that the Refugee Convention and the international protection system function effectively over the long-term, including encouraging countries in our region to provide protection to those in need.”

The difficulty, of course, is that for Shorten to act – as I believe he should – will require a degree of courage not demonstrated by those who constructed the appalling mess that serves as Labor’s current policy. He will need to stand firm in the face of the shock-jocks and the tabloid ranters and the focus group-driven machine men. But he has clause 157 of the party’s platform, and the principles embodied in the beliefs and values that underpin it, to rely on.

Australians, and in particular people who want to support the Labor Party, and those many ALP members who agonise over the abandonment of the platform, would, I am sure, be particularly keen to see Shorten respond positively to this proud boast that it is Labor that will provide leadership on an asylum seeker policy that is humane, compassionate and consistent with international obligations to which we have willingly acceded.

I believe they will look to Shorten to truly lead the debate and to reassert the principles that are already written in the party’s platform.

Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope

* Jon Stanhope was Administrator of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands from 2012 to 2014. He was (Labor) Chief Minister of the ACT from 2001 to 2011, and was the only leader to stand up for transparency when the Howard government wanted to introduce draconian anti-terrorism legislation without consulting the people. This article appeared first in the Canberra Times

 

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