On-water martyrs

Before the 2019 election, the Labor left was offered a deal, which it took: Don’t make too much noise about refugees and we’ll sort it out if we win. At a state conference in 2018, the party voted to shut down debate early so it wouldn’t have to deal with a motion on indefinite detention. So afraid was it of being wedged that it ran away from its own convention. At the time, union boss John Setka described it as “democracy at work”.

During this election campaign, Anthony Albanese made clear that he supports offshore detention. Kristina Keneally announced Labor would seek “cost recovery” from the people it locks up. “The vast majority of people in detention are criminals,” she said, “or have violated their visa.”

In one of the first decisions of the new government, the then acting prime minister, Richard Marles, instructed Border Force to continue with the return of a boat of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia from Sri Lanka. He intended this as a lesson.

“I think it’s important to say upfront that what this shows is that there is absolutely no change in terms of Australia’s border settings under this government,” Marles said. “We will maintain a strong border, which is the right thing to do in terms of protecting lives at sea.”

After so long in opposition, so much of it unfairly, Labor seems to have forgotten what happens when you win. You no longer need to agree with the cruelty of the Coalition. You do not need to indulge their fantasies about “safe borders”. You can take off the “I’m with stupid” T-shirt. When you win you are allowed to start leading.

The Liberal Party now is a nub, an ugly protuberance creeping part way up the opposition benches. It got like that because it was too willing to engage in the worst of politics. It was too enthusiastic a villain, not just on refugees but on equality and aged care and health and education.

The Labor Party does not have to follow. It is no longer captive to the Coalition. It can shake itself free of the false notion that refugees must be punished to keep Australia safe. To do so, however, it will have to break with a decade of nodding agreement.

It could start by offering residency to the 30,000 people living in the community on bridging visas. Theirs is a purgatory that could end tomorrow. Some already have work rights but all should. None should fear being deported from the place they are making home.

Once this is done, it could begin calmly reminding the country that the vulnerable people seeking asylum here are not a threat. The notion of them as criminals was a lie both sides of politics shamefully encouraged. Nor are they responsible for traffic or hospital queues or competition for jobs. This was a lie also, told because it made politicians feel less culpable for the things they should have fixed.

When Richard Marles says there will be “absolutely no change” under the government in which he is serving, he is forgetting something very important: change is what the country just voted for.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "On-water martyrs".

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