Labor for Refugees always opposed turnbacks and right up to the last evening before the refugee debate took place, intended to submit a motion opposing turnbacks plus other motions including one to close Manus Island and Nauru. However, Labor for Refugees decided to withdraw its own motion on turnbacks and argued the case at Left caucus against putting the Andrew Giles/Murray Watt motion opposing turnbacks to the floor of the conference, in circumstances where it was bound to fail.
This was because we discovered that the Left would not bind and the CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor would not support it. The CFMEU had 20 Delegates and United Voice, who did not have a binding vote, had 12 Delegates. Labor for Refugees had, in the lead up to Conference, effectively lobbied Right unions including the NUW, SDA and AWU, so if the Left had been united, there would have been a good chance of getting major refugee reforms through the Conference. With the numbers so close (and the right bound on the platform remaining silent on turnbacks) any split in the Left doomed it to fail.
Labor for Refugees consistently said that the platform as it stands (which is silent on turnbacks) prohibits turn-backs. It requires compliance with international law and turn-backs involve breaches of international law. In spite of knowing that the turnback motion would not get up on the floor of Conference, after Labor for Refugees lost the argument at the Left caucus, I voted for the Giles/Watt motion opposing turnbacks on the floor of the conference, which of course went down. Losing that motion has left those who campaigned against turn backs in a much worse position that had the motion never been put.
It was a very difficult decision for Labor for Refugees to make and we knew that it may be misunderstood but we wanted the best outcome for refugees. That was always the foremost consideration for us.
On the positive side, Labor for Refugees also promoted a petition called “Labor Women Say” asking all ALP women to sign up to end abuse and close Nauru & Manus Island. The issue of turnbacks, which dominated the refugee debate, allowed barely any time to debate the issue of offshore processing centres. Labor for Refugees submitted a motion demanding that both the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres be closed. However, the Left proposed a watered down version which was moved by Murray Watt/Andrew Giles. Even this watered down version by the Left was defeated on the floor of Conference because it was not binding on the Left.
Labor for Refugees held a fringe event that surpassed all others for attendance and engagement and obtained significant media coverage. Labor for Refugees had a consistently staffed stall and the tireless volunteers there fielded many questions from many delegates and changed quite a few positions. We distributed hundreds of T-shirts which were highly visible during the ill-fated debate on conference floor. Labor for Refugees National Co-Convenor Shane Prince addressed a large rally outside Conference and received a very warm reception (notwithstanding his Labor colours). More importantly, 90% of the Labor for Refugee amendments which were settled on by the Labor for Refugees National Co-ordinating Committee during the consultation draft phase were incorporated into the platform which was adopted by the conference. Those amendments were argued by Shane Prince in the National Policy Forum Working Group, to which he was invited because of the significance of Labor for Refugees’ contribution in this area.
Book Launch – The Drownings’ Argument
On Saturday 21 February 2015 at Balmain Town Hall meeting room, Julian Burnside QC launched this small, but significant volume of essays! He began by apologising for the book’s title, not so much the stray apostrophe as for the fact that it should have been The Drownings Excuse…..and for the fact that we need such a book at all. The room was packed; no where near enough chairs to go round. He told us of the misery of particular individuals; he told us about people having their medications and hearing aids etc taken from them; he told us about the mammoth task he had undertaken to get letters from Australians to asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus, and how , after 12 months, the Dept had returned all the mail to him as sender, unopened. Where has our humanity, where has our basic decency gone?
Verity Firth, Labor candidate for Balmain, chaired the meeting, and she and Shane Prince, Co-convenor of Labor for Refugees, told audience members about Labor’s appalling record in government on this issue, Labor’s timidity currently in opposition, and the efforts of Labor members to change this and set the refugees free. Read Verity’s welcome here.