Rethinking boat arrivals policy?

My position over the years on asylum seekers who come by boat has been fairly consistent. I have lamented the trajectory taken on this issue over the past decade and more, but at the same time I have never been an advocate of open borders – or a policy of warm-hearted anarchy.

I made a point of watching live on ABC News 24 the recent ALP Conference debate the motion to ban boat turnbacks with interest. The standard of debate was itself encouraging. I have to admit to being moved by Tony Burke’s speech.

Tony Burke, who was immigration minister when Labor lost office in 2013, told the conference 33 people died in less than four months he spent as Minister, including a 10-week-old baby.

In a passionate and emotional speech arguing that Labor needs to be able to turn boats back, he said he asked his staff to find out the child’s name from the Department.

“The staff came back and said, ‘Oh no, we have spoken to the Department they can’t give you the name, you can’t use it in the media at the moment because the names can change and the details can change’.”

“And I said, ‘Can you just tell them, I don’t want to use it in the media’.

“He was 10 weeks old. He died on my watch. I just want to know his name. His name was Abdul Jafari.

“I was given his name on a post-it note and I kept that post-it note on my desk until we lost office.”

Mr Burke said Labor needed to change its policy.

“Be in no doubt, if we allow a consequence of our policies to be that people smugglers can credibly argue that they can sell someone the chance to be Australian, then good, desperate people will say that’s worth the risk,” he said.

“I want us to help more people than we’ve ever helped before but I want everyone to get here safely.”

Some in the audience were moved to tears by his speech.

Now hot on the heels of that debate (lost, by the way, so that turnbacks remain an option under Labor, though whether The Greens let it happen is a moot point) comes SBS with series 3 of Go Back to Where You Came From on three nights this week.


See TV highlights: Go Back to Where You Came From.

As the tagline says, the boats might have stopped, but the debate hasn’t. Certainly, this third iteration of SBS’ controversial and award-winning series feels timely. It’s also confronting, thought-provoking, moving and difficult to watch. There are six participants this time and initially it feels like the scales have been weighted a little towards the “go back” camp: only two of the six are vocal in their support of refugees, and criticism of current government policy. But the situation is actually more subtle and fluid than that. The remaining four represent quite a broad sweep of opinion, from the unashamedly redneck to the educated and concerned. They include Davy, who, as an eight-year-old, was put on a boat by his parents, came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee, and is now a vigorous supporter of Operation Sovereign Borders. If nothing else, this series is a fascinating insight into human nature. At times, the shouty righteousness of the “welcome refugees” faction is as off-putting as the xenophobia of their opponents. It’s intriguing to see the way different people process exactly the same information. And, of course – this is a linchpin of the format – it’s compelling to see how people react when confronted with the human reality of their preconceived theories. One pothole that does emerge early is the government’s absolute refusal to allow filming inside our detention centres. It denies us the opportunity to make up our own minds. It also undercuts the whole process here: whatever these people went in thinking about detention centres necessarily remains unchallenged.

Elsewhere, though, our six participants have the opportunity to physically test their beliefs and it is to the enormous credit of all six that they tough out what must be an extraordinarily challenging ordeal, physically and emotionally. And, as always, Go Back to Where You Came From is an opportunity for us to get a taste of that ordeal, and perhaps reassess our own positions.

I posted back in 2012 on the previous series: Not yet on Go Back 2012 on SBS; The email from Quitnet and further framing thoughts on GBTWYCF2 on SBS; Go Back to Where You Came From 2012–revisited–Part 1; Go Back to Where You Came From 2012–revisited–Part 2 and on the first in 2011: Pub talk, reality TV, reality and “Go Back to Where You Came From”; About last night’s “Send them back…” and Paul Sheehan.