Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

The Challenge of Refugee Policy

June 26, 2019



I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re gathered and pay myrespects to elders - past, present and emerging.

It’s my very great pleasure to be here in Adelaide this evening, to make my first speech as a member of the Albanese shadow ministry to the Fabians. I’m proud to be a Fabian, and to make a contribution to the important work of the Australian Fabians in building a stronger culture of progressive ideas in this country.

I’m excited to do so tonight alongside my friend Brad Chilcott, and to have the pleasure of hearing from Arian Rezai and Arefa Hassani. I see tonight as representing the start of a dialogue. Hopefully, a rich exchange of ideas and experiences, to advance policy debate and lift up the possibilities of our politics.

I strongly share the view of Anthony Albanese, that we in Labor should hasten slowly and listen, actively, in formulating policies that effectively express our values and connect to the aspirations of Australians.

I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to work with and for Senator Keneally, as the senior Labor spokesperson. Kristina brings to the role a wealth of interest and experience, as well as extraordinary capacity, and a deep reservoir of decency. I hope that, in assisting her in the areas of immigration and citizenship I can make a meaningful contribution to Labor’s efforts - and to advancing the cause of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.

It’s important that we recognise the contributions of Shayne Neumann and Richard Marles, who have previously had responsibilities for Immigration during our time in opposition.

Their work, and the inclusive and mature manner in which they did it, has led us towards a platform that I’m proud of.

Our plans to work with the UNCHR to build effective partnerships and pathways to safety in our region, to restore the Refugee Convention to our laws, to change the language of this debate, to accept New Zealand’s decent resettlement offer and, of course, to help more people rebuild their lives - including through an expanded community sponsorship program - these are all very significant commitments. And only a fraction of the present Labor approach to asylum.

This represents a very solid foundation from which to start.

Which is not to say we can’t do better. Of course we can, and we must.

Along with holding the government to account (and how nice would it be to see more attention paid to the dismal record of the Coalition in this space), our first responsibility is to look at our platform and policies with clear eyes and an open mind - to the changing realities of displaced people around the world, not just to the domestic political sensibilities of the day.

In doing so, we mustn’t ignore the lessons of our journey towards this point.

Not least because the election just past was the first this millennium not to feature prominently the demonisation of asylum seekers. I’m not sure if we can quite characterise this as something to celebrate, but it is a significant development, something to build upon.

I believe that public sentiment here is shifting.

I believe that the debate over the Medevac legislation showed that this is an area where Australians are feeling ‘conflict fatigue’ - where they expect more from politicians than slogans and fear-mongering.

I believe that most Australians recognise that the policy-making challenges here are complex, but are being made more so by a politics of false binaries and unnecessary aggression from Minister Dutton and those around him.

This noise has crowded out both a reasoned and reasonable exchange of ideas, and the voices of those whose lives are directly affected by the policy choices we make.

We have to change this.

We have to give Australia’s hopeful side a fair chance to prevail over the politics of fear, and division.

This evening, I can’t pretend that I have all the answers. I don’t.

But I do have some ideas, fueled by a sense of optimism.

For starters, let’s engage in our debate, not the arguments Minister Dutton wants to provoke.

We can do this by situating the asylum debate in its proper context. That is, as part of our wider commitment to immigration, and to multiculturalism. That I’ve been appointed as the shadow minister for Multicultural Affairs I think demonstrates how we can better link the mix of cultures that is such a strength of modern Australia to a sense of citizenship that is inclusive.

Australians are rightly proud of our immigration story, and should be concerned at how this government has been undermining its foundations. It’s our job to call out the dog-whistling rhetoric, and to expose what lies beneath it.

Because it’s not only people seeking asylum who are hurting under Minister Dutton.

It’s all of us. The devaluing of immigration and settlement functions within the Home Affairs framework, the extraordinary delays in visa processing and citizenship applications don’t just frustrate the affected individuals, they affect our society at large. It’s shocking to think what the proposed visa privatisation could do to exacerbate this - which is why Labor will be fighting these plans every step of the way.

And when whole communities are singled out for abuse, which is underpinned by outright and outrageous lies - like the preposterous notion that people in my home town are too scared to go out for dinner - something is profoundly wrong.

Governments should seek to bring people together, that’s been the modern story of settlement in Australia, and of our commitment to multiculturalism. But there’s an unease which is easy to appreciate, as some communities feel under pressure and under supported.

When Jason Wood, the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs can say ‘most migrants when they come here don’t know what it means to be Australian’, I’m concerned.

What it means to be Australian isn’t set in stone, of course - but this language reinforces a ‘them and us’ mentality that fosters division.

This approach must be challenged.

It’s not only asylum seekers who are the victims of the agenda of the Morrison government, but all our culturally and linguistically diverse groups - and the strength our diversity has given all of us.

Labor stands with multicultural Australia, and for a sense of belonging, through citizenship which reinforces our solidarity.

There’s another way in which we might change the politics of our asylum debate.

It’s through better remembering that this is about people’s lives.

And having more confidence in the empathy and decency of Australians.

I spoke earlier of what I believe the Medevac debate signals. I feel similarly about the possibilities of community sponsorship as a conversation-changer.

As I do more generally about how our policy challenge would be more readily met if it was grounded in a clearer sense of what’s at stake for those forced to ask us for help.

Tonight, we’ll hear two such voices. I’ll try to bear witness to them as I go about this work.

Can we make these concrete experiences more prominent than either the abstractions or international law on the one hand, or baseless fear-mongering on the other?

Since 2001, not only has the politics of asylum been challenging, its environment has been rapidly changing, transforming both the scale of the problem - we live in a world where there are now over 70 million displaced people - and the immediate issues we’ve had to respond to.

As the facts have changed, so have some of my views.

But not my values, nor my determination to make a difference for the world’s most vulnerable people.

These values, our Labor values. Let us remember that the light on the hill, our movement of change’s core mission, doesn’t stop shining at our border. Our objective is to do good ‘anywhere we may lend a helping hand’.

Ben Chifley was right then, and he’s right now.

We are a rich country, full of decent people, many of whom have made their lives here as refugees.

We are a much, much better country for their contributions - and for the privilege of sharing their stories.

So, let’s be clear about values, and that the policies we adopt must be practical expressions of those values: compassion, a recognition of our common humanity, respect for the fair go, taking responsibility and showing leadership to those who look to us.

I should also be clear about one last thing.

We will have difficult conversations as we make a path towards the light on this particular hill. From time to time, we may well disagree.

There are, and there will be, different ways to achieve shared objectives, to advance shared values.

But I am committed, alongside Senator Keneally, to having the debate, to listening, to talking through concerns and hearing all the voices and perspectives.

This is how we will change the conversation, and this is how we should go about changing our country.