A progressive response to Operation Sovereign Borders

Many progressives see no difference between the ALP and the Coalition in terms of policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Like many political stereotypes, there is a grain of truth to this argument. Both support offshore processing, offshore settlement and mandatory detention, three central pillars of official policy.

Yet there remain substantial differences. I want to outline two and comment on how both can contribute to a more progressive policy position for the ALP, something craved by its members and progressive supporters. This will not “solve” the gap between federal politicians and supporters, nor will it change offshore settlement for asylum seekers, what many see as the greatest mishap of the Gillard/Rudd period. Yet it will help by providing more opportunity for refugees to settle in Australia and fostering a better relationship between advocates and the only party that can implement a progressive policy for asylum seekers and humanitarian migrants.

The first major difference is the language used by politicians to describe policy. It is clear John Howard’s infamous “We decide” line was the start of the current era of asylum and refugee policy. Asylum policy became incorporated by an overtly nationalistic tone, appealing to voters who abandoned the Coalition in 1998.


Sam Dastyari said it best in his maiden speech, “I believe John Howard’s calculated response to the Tampa affair appealed to the worst in us. It may have helped win an election but it hardened my resolve as a then 18-year-old living the Australian dream in Sydney’s north-west”.

The ALP successfully shifted the terms of this debate, something few people are willing to concede. Instead of an appeal to the ‘worst in us’, policy was shaped as preventing the inevitable drownings which occurred too frequently off the coast of Indonesia and Australia. Some will say this doesn’t matter as it doesn’t help those stuck on Manus Island, yet it matters a great deal.

By removing the policy from the clutches nationalistic far-right, the ALP were able protect asylum seekers and humanitarian entrants in Australia from vicious barbs, filled with hate, directed at any asylum seeker. This behaviour was accepted and condoned, because of the words of the then-Prime Minister. While undoubtedly discrimination occurs everyday in Australia, the ability to change the debate from sovereignty to avoiding drownings actively sought to provide society with the means to say these people were accepted. They were not infringing on our sovereignty and they were welcome here.

Operation Sovereign Borders removes these means. The name alone signals aggressive opposition to asylum seekers, not the apparatus which supports and maintains the status quo. The militarisation of asylum policy is the most provocative signal in asylum policy ever taken in this country. Operation Sovereign Borders begs people to blame asylum seekers, inferring these people threaten Australia in a manner more akin to wartime.

Based on this critical difference, it is time for the ALP to renew its commitment to Australia’s humanitarian program. One of the most pleasing policy changes of the Gillard government was the increase in the number of people granted humanitarian visas to 20,000, up from 13,500. The program had stagnated for nearly two decades while other parts of Australia’s immigration program – skilled and family visas – reached historic highs. It was entirely predictable that one of the Abbott Governments first decisions was to remove the additional places, on the premise of saving ~$500m per year to help stem the ‘budget emergency’.

The 20,000 figure remains ALP policy. Yet somehow it feels as if the party simply wishes the issue would disappear. This policy arguably does more for the poorest, most destitute people in the world than any other government decision or money. It is time to build on this.

Every time Operation Sovereign Borders is mentioned, the humanitarian program must be invoked. The Coalition say they support “real” refugees yet their action in government betrays these hollow words. Nothing crystallises the difference in approach between the ALP and the Coalition more than this policy decision.

To press home the importance of the humanitarian program, a long-term commitment to link the humanitarian program as a proportion of the overall migration program is required. This is the best method to ensure a constant increase in the number of humanitarian migrants as Australia’s immigration program grows naturally over time.

Unfortunately Australia cannot take as many refugees as a country such as the U.S. (currently ~50,000/year) however we can make a decision as to what is the appropriate proportion of the total immigration intake and work towards that. This would be very similar to indexing family welfare payments so that overtime, inflation doesn’t eat away at the real value. As Australia’s population grows, so too can our humanitarian intake.

This will not happen in a vacuum. It will take a sustained campaign by ALP supporters and members to change policy. You should stop reading this and email your federal MP. Propose a motion at your local branch meeting. Nag your friends who might not like asylum seekers but support the humanitarian program (about 50 per cent of the population regardless of voting intentions).

The prosecution of this argument should be done with vigour, drawing out the true intentions of the Abbott Government. There is ample evidence to suggest the Australian public strongly supports the humanitarian program, meaning this policy will find support in the community when advocated for.

In a decade, the difference between the Abbott government and an ALP government would amount to ~75,000 people. This is a real difference, one which changes lives and provides opportunities unlike anywhere else in the world. It shows the ALP is serious about helping those most in need while the Abbott government only gives lip service to the notion. It will help repair the fractious relationship between the progressive left and the ALP, where together further change can be advocated for.


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