Australia’s centre-left Labor party has warned would-be migrants considering the boat journey from Indonesia they will be forcibly returned if it wins May’s election, embracing hardline policies of the current government.
As right and left fight in Europe and the United States brawl over Mediterranean rescues and border walls, Australia’s bickering political factions head to elections in lock-step on one of most contentious issues in modern politics.
The conservative government has been pilloried worldwide for its policy of intercepting boats and leaving would-be refugees to languish in remote Pacific detention camps for years in conditions that have been roundly condemned by human rights organisations.
The Labor party is ahead in opinion polls and is tipped to oust conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government in elections due by mid-May.
But fearful of being accused by the electorate as favouring soft borders, shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann said on Friday that migrants would still be intercepted at sea and forced to return under a new administration.
“It does not matter who is the Australian Government – you will be turned back and you will never settle in Australia,” Neumann said in a statement, urging people not to engage smugglers known to ply their trade in the Timor Sea.
“People smugglers are lying to you when they say they can get you to Australia,” he said. “Do not waste your money or risk your life trying to get to Australia by boat – your boat will be turned back.”
The election season has rekindled the debate about how to police the country’s 36,000km coastline – a distance that, if stretched out, would span from New York to Bangkok and back.
For decades, Australian governments of all political hues have backed the policy of turning the boats around and not allowing migrants to reach Australia by sea – an idea now embraced by hard-right politicians in Italy and Spain.
Australia has long defended the policy on the grounds it deters dangerous voyages that often result in mass drownings.
But in recent months slight differences have emerged between the parties – particularly about keeping asylum-seekers indefinitely in offshore detention camps – raising questions about whether the consensus would end.
Labor has argued for a more humane treatment of migrants and this week served Morrison’s government a humiliating parliamentary defeat on the issue, joining with independents to change the law and allow detained asylum-seekers to receive medical treatment in Australia.
Almost Zero Boat Arrivals
Morrison responded with furious accusations that Labor was inviting more people to attempt the sea crossing from Indonesia. He reopened a detention centre on Christmas Island, an Australian territory just off the coast of Java to underscore his point.
“I have to do it now because the parliament decided to make a stupid decision,” Morrison said on Friday.
Political observers see Morrison’s heated rhetoric as a signal to the restive right of his party and a re-run of the playbook that helped bring election wins for the party under John Howard and Tony Abbott.
Both those victories coincided with a spike in boat arrivals and made the party hugely popular. Today’s policies mean the number is almost zero, prompting suggestions Morrison is manufacturing a crisis.
Public opinion polls show Australians conflicted on migration with many believing too many people are coming to the country and others that openness is essential to the character of a nation built on immigration.
Labor officials privately admit party policy on immigration is well to the right of most centre-left equivalents in Europe or North America.
But with so much electoral scarred tissue, Labor is still loath to let any more daylight emerge between it and Morrison’s Liberals.
“Under a Labor Government, there will be no changes to Australia’s strong border protection regime. Our border protection policies are exactly the same as a Liberal Government,” said Neumann.