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Labor's Operation Sovereign Borders dilemma

  • 25 May 2015

The dreadful tragedy suffered this past week by Rohingya asylum seekers trapped at sea prompted an eventual softened response from Australia’s neighbours.

But there was no change from Australia’s PM, who resolutely declared late on Thursday: ‘I'm sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.’

The week’s events provide a fresh challenge to Labor to rethink its support for the Abbott Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) ‘stop the boats’ policy, which has successfully used strong-arm methods to stop boat people reaching Australia or entering Australian custody, by means that so seemingly has not involved loss of life.

The current government’s record stands in sharp contrast to that of Labor Governments between 2007 and 2013, when around 1100 people died while trying to reach Australia or Australian custody. We need to ask ourselves honestly how and why this happened, and if Labor in government could prevent it from happening again?

If, on regaining government, Labor did what most of its supporters would like it to do – instruct OSB to end its regime of aggressive, secret, internationally illegal forced returns of all asylum-seeker boats or their passengers to Indonesia, and close down the offshore detention camps  now housing around 1500 men, women and children in terrible punitive conditions in Nauru and Manus, and letting those people out into the Australian community – what would be the consequences?

Clearly, the Abbott Government, for as long as it is in power, will continue to run Operation Sovereign Borders maritime operations under the present forced return protocols, and will keep everyone now in offshore detention locked up there indefinitely. The latter is a dreadful prospect which Labor must oppose vigorously.  

But I would like Labor, as a first step towards fruitful public policy discussion of this issue, to be more honest about why those 1100 people died in the years of Labor in power. They only have to study the history of each awful drowning event in our adjacent waters. Those 1100 people did not die because they were sent in unsafe overcrowded boats by ruthless irresponsible people smugglers – the 97 per cent who arrived safely were sent by the same kinds of people smugglers in the same kinds of boats.

The three per cent who died, did so because Labor’s operational model for border protection and rescue of people in distress at sea, which tried