Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says he has had to face the truth that turning back people smuggling boats has saved lives, confirming he wants Labor to change its asylum seeker policy and support turnbacks.
The move is expected to be met with fierce opposition by members of the ALP’s left faction at its national conference this weekend, but Mr Shorten said a turnbacks policy was needed to save lives.
“Labor wants to defeat the people smugglers and we want to prevent drownings at sea,” he told the ABC’s 7.30.
“Therefore one of the options which we believe has to be on the table, if we’re given the privilege of forming government, has to be the option to turn back boats.
“It’s not easy, though, because it involves the admission, I think, that mistakes were made when Labor was last in government,” he added.
“And for myself, if I want to be the leader of this nation, I’ve got to be able to face the truth and the truth for me is that if we have policies in place which gives sustenance and support to people smugglers to exploit vulnerable people, where they put these vulnerable people on unsafe boats and then people drown at sea, I can’t support any policies which do that.”
News of the move was revealed in an opinion piece Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles wrote for the Herald Sun newspaper.
“Despite best intentions, a terrible loss of life took place on Labor’s watch,” he wrote.
“We did not get it right then but we are very clear now about making sure we don’t repeat those mistakes.
“Offshore processing and regional resettlement together with the Coalition’s policy of turnbacks is what actually stopped the boats.
“I believe, provided it can be done safely, a future Labor government must have the option to undertake turnbacks.”
Shorten hints at lifting of refugee intake
Mr Shorten also hinted that Labor would lift Australia’s refugee intake if it formed government, saying he would have more to say on the issue in coming days.
“Boat turnbacks is only one of the issues in a pretty complex situation. What we have is more displaced people, more refugees than the world has ever seen,” he said.
“Australia should do its fair share, and that’s why we’re prepared to consider things which previously we might not have, because we get that it’s a big problem and we’ve got to be humane and we’ve got to make sure that the issue is not refugees, the issue is making sure people are safe.”
Within minutes of quotes from Mr Marles’ piece being published, former Labor MP Steve Gibbons criticised the stance on Twitter.
The ‘turn back the boats’ policy will be driven by those gutless Western Suburbs MP’s who let ‘red-necks’ determine Labor policy!
— Steve Gibbons (@SteveGibbonsXMP) July 22, 2015
“The ‘turn back the boats’ policy will be driven by those gutless Western Suburbs MP’s [sic] who let ‘red-necks’ determine Labor policy!” Mr Gibbons tweeted.
Mr Marles pre-emptively defended his position in the opinion piece.
“This is not about pandering to the politics of fear, it is about having a sensible, safe set of policies that will stop people from dying.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Labor remained weak on border protection.
“Labor giving themselves the ‘option’ to turn back boats is what they promise at every election,” he tweeted.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young was also critical of the change in Labor’s position.
“Boat turnbacks are all about pushing refugees away, to let them die in someone else’s waters,” she tweeted.
“Labor’s capitulation to Abbott won’t end well.”