On Monday night, late in the evening after Labor’s national conference had debated asylum seeker and refugee policy, I sat at a bar with a mix of refugee advocates, conference delegates like myself, people seeking asylum and refugees.
In the lead-up to and during a Conference that determines the future policy and practice of a party that looks like forming government, it’s easy to lose focus; to get caught up in the public campaigning, the private lobbying, the inter-factional negotiations and the horse-trading; to calculate what can be won that will move policy in the right direction for the lives of those who need change most and what we know will be lost.
But when you sit with someone directly impacted – either helped or further harmed – by the results of these negotiations, the platform chapters, paragraphs, amendments and ballot results become people and even the policy “wins” are revealed to have greater complexity as people interpret the careful political framing through the lens of their own experience.
The Labor Party’s platform, if implemented in government, would significantly change the lives of many thousands of people over time. Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) will be abolished and those who’ve lived, worked, established businesses, studied and raised children in our community with the constant fear that it might all come to an end in a couple of years will be able to move to permanent visas. My friends on SHEVs wonder how long they will need to wait for citizenship – they’ve been here for more than six years, contributing, employing people, paying taxes – will they need be on their new permanent visas for one year or another four before they can finally call Australia home?
The coalition of advocacy and settlement organisations that has been campaigning for a better Community Refugee Sponsorship program than the current Liberal Government model had a big win – Labor in government would establish a community refugee sponsorship program based on the successful Canadian model and, instead of being a cost-saving measure like the current program, every person sponsored to be welcomed in Australia will be additional to the humanitarian intake. Shadow Minister Shayne Neumann announced that there will be 5,000 annual places for this program – on top of 27,000 annual humanitarian places – meaning that 32,000 people a year will find safety, peace and belonging in Australia if the government changes at the next election.
My friend on a bridging visa, who came by boat as an unaccompanied child, wonders how this will benefit his family who he hasn’t seen now for many years. Will someone be able to sponsor them to join him in Australia? Will the ban on family reunion visas for relatives of those who came by boat by lifted? Will they have to join the massive waiting list? Surely family reunion should be on top of the 32,000 people, he argues, because my family needs to be safe but it shouldn’t mean someone else can’t find safety too? Perhaps, he wonders, when I am a citizen it will be easier to bring them here. He doesn’t want to wait that long, his younger siblings barely recognise him.
The ALP Platform now includes the policy foundation for the Medical Transfers Bill that caused Prime Minister Morrison shut down Parliament early so he could avoid it becoming law. Labor in government would restore income, housing and medical support to people seeking asylum living in the Australian community. Bill Shorten announced $500m in financial support for the UNHCR in our region, to establish safe pathways for people seeking refuge and to support them while they await resettlement in Indonesia or other nations. Labor promised to empty Manus and Nauru detention centres and committed to accepting New Zealand’s offer of welcoming hundreds of the people languishing in both places.
Importantly, the conference also agreed to abolish the unfair “fast-track” assessment process for people seeking asylum. Not only is “fast-track” a laughable misnomer, it is also an unfair process that has seen thousands of people seeking asylum have their claims for refugee status rejected. Some have been sent into danger, others have lost their lives, others remain in limbo in the Australian community without any clear hope for re-establishing their lives.
However, the push led by Labor MPs Andrew Giles and Ged Kearney to have assessments rejected under the fast-track process reviewed lost a vote on conference floor – leaving up to 6,000 people who did not have the privilege of fair process to suffer the life-shattering consequences of rejection.
My friend on a bridging visa – who hasn’t had his first refugee assessment interview despite arriving more than five years ago – is glad to hear of these changes. But he wonders what an incoming Labor government would do about the people who’ve been appointed by the Liberal government to the review body, the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA), for seven years. From his perspective, the IAA has been stacked to ensure as many rejections as possible. He wants to know how Labor will ensure a fair process when those who run the process are not fair? Statistics suggest he might be right – only 12% of cases are sent back to Home Affairs because of an incorrect decision.
Sitting at the bar, I’m reminded again that no matter how emotionally or politically invested I am in creating a just, fair and welcoming Australia for people seeking asylum and refugees – I get to go home to my family. My citizenship or safety is not at risk. For the people who’ve suffered at Australia’s hands after fleeing from the violence and insecurity of their home country, the uncertainty continues. There’s hope about a new regime if Labor wins government – but also deep suspicion that their Kafka-esque experience will continue just with new names on the doors of power, and in the footers of the letters they receive from Home Affairs.
Brad Chilcott is Founder, Welcome to Australia.