Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is preparing to firm up Labor’s plans to double Australia’s refugee intake, in a move that is expected to quell some of the internal discontent over his decision to endorse the Government’s policy to turn back asylum seeker boats.
Despite previously criticising the Coalition’s turnback policy, Mr Shorten has confirmed he is in favour of it.
The announcement came just days before the ALP’s national conference.
“I think it’s important to be honest with my party and the nation and, if I was to form a government, I would want the option of boat turnbacks – where safe to do so – on the table,” Mr Shorten told Channel 7 on Thursday morning.
He will take the policy approach to this weekend’s conference and ask for support from almost 400 voting delegates – a mix of MPs, grassroots members and union representatives.
The about-face has enraged some members of Labor’s Left faction who feel ambushed by the decision.
Frontbencher Anthony Albanese says he has “real concerns” about the decision.
Mr Albanese, who lost the Labor leadership ballot to Mr Shorten after the 2013 election, made the remarks in an address to Labor supporters at his pre-ALP national conference drinks in Melbourne.
“I have real concerns about the way that yesterday was conducted in terms of the announcement on asylum seekers,” he said.
“I think that it is absolutely critical, critical that we always remember our need for compassion and to not appeal to our darker sides.
“Labor is at our best when we appeal to the best in society, when we represent a vision for the future – a vision of hope, for aspiration…. something that will mobilise people to go and work out there for the Labor cause.
“That is how we have been successful in the past. I firmly believe that is how we will be successful in the future.”
MP Andrew Giles suggested the move would breach international law.
Victorian MP Anna Burke said a lot of voters would be reconsidering their support for Labor and she would not vote in favour of the change.
“I’m not in a position to support that policy,” she said.
“I don’t think there’s a need to be trumpeting turnbacks.”
Some MPs want the party to endorse a hard target for the refugee intake rather than an aspirational goal.
Labor took a humanitarian intake of 20,000 people per year to the last election.
There is a draft platform up for consideration this weekend, for the party to “aspire” to progressively increase the intake to 27,000 places a year.
That would be close to double the existing 13,750-place intake under the Coalition government.
The ABC has been told Mr Shorten will harden that language and put forward a proposal for the increase this weekend.
Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan describes herself as “non-aligned” to any particular faction.
She is backing Mr Shorten’s position in favour of boat turnbacks but says her support is conditional.
“The quid pro quo will be doubling the refugee intake,” she said.
“That means the most vulnerable people around the world will have an opportunity to come to Australia.”
Mr Shorten strongly hinted at an increase in the refugee intake when he announced the policy change on Wednesday night.
“We will have more to say in coming days about being willing to support more refugees and to take up our burden internationally,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program.
Labor frontbencher Stephen Conroy has acknowledged Mr Shorten will face a close contest when he asks for support for the turnback policy.
“It is very close and there’s people of goodwill on both sides who are very passionate about this,” Senator Conroy told Sky News.
“I believe in the end Bill’s position will carry the conference floor.”
Mr Shorten is not expected to put forward a new platform to explicitly endorse turnbacks, but rather to argue the current policies do not rule the practice out.
The matter is only likely to go to a vote if those opposed to the policy put forward a specific ban on turn-backs, which the group Labor for Refugees has flagged doing.
Mr Albanese is a member of Labor’s left faction which reaffirmed its opposition to turn-backs after a lengthy meeting this afternoon.
In their leadership contest, Mr Albanese won a ballot of Labor’s rank-and-file members but Mr Shorten had the numbers in Caucus and was elected leader when the two votes were combined.
‘I wish he’d done it two years ago’
On 7.30, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he was prepared to congratulate Mr Shorten for changing his view on turn-backs.
“I’m prepared to say good on Bill. I just wish he’d done it two years ago,” Mr Abbott said.
“I just wish he’d done it when he was in government, because if he was in government, up to 1000 people might not be dead.
“My problem is not this 11th-hour change of position, my problem is do they really believe it?
“Because as we know to make these policies work, you can’t just say you support them, you’ve got to actually believe it in your heart and soul and I’m not sure that too many people in Labor do.”