• Opposition leader Bill Shorten during House of Representatives Question time in Canberra. (AAP)
Opposition leader Bill Shorten is missing a golden opportunity to make the most out of the government's recent blunders with Manus Island, writes Lilani Goonesena.
By
Lilani Goonesena

27 Feb 2014 - 10:04 AM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2014 - 10:16 AM

At Monday’s Parliament question time, Bill Shorten was handed a golden moment. Scott Morrison was wriggling on the end of a hook following his admittance that the death of Reza Berati on Manus Island last week did occur inside the centre. The Greens had just called for his resignation. It was a “political gotcha” and everyone awaited Mr Shorten’s response.

Unfortunately, it was … nonexistent.

It is worrying that the Australian Opposition appears to be doing very little to stem the rapid unraveling of Australia’s human rights record on asylum seekers.

Even when questioned directly, Bill Shorten seems unable to provide a definitive opinion. In an ABC interview on February 7th, he says, “In terms of the asylum seekers, our position is, what is the government doing? ... we would just like them to tell us what they’re doing.”

As would we all. And we wouldn’t mind some clarity from you too, Mr Shorten. What are you doing?

The recent violence on Manus Island is only one part of the Abbott government’s secretive and increasingly dangerous asylum seeker policy.

In the last week, the Australian public has learnt three more disturbing facts. First, that at least one other boat has made it to Australian waters, despite Scott Morrison’s “guarantee” of ‘stopping the boats’.

Second, that a former Sri Lankan military commander is currently heading operations at Manus Island, overseeing the safety of 30 Tamil asylum seekers who escaped that very regime.

And, third, that the government has asked Cambodia, whose human rights record is one of the worst in Asia, to resettle some of Australia’s refugees.

If this isn’t reason enough for the Opposition Leader to intervene, then Australia’s reputation as a decent and generous nation is going to sink faster than a leaky boat. Pun intended.

The government has a duty of care to people seeking asylum from persecution. It’s written in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory. Yet they are blatantly disregarding that duty and people are dying. This is Bill Shorten’s moment to stand up and mark himself as a man of principles.

And yet… he isn’t.

What is even more remarkable is that Bill Shorten is ignoring the golden opportunity to make the most of the government’s recent misinformation blunders on Manus Island. Were the shoe on the other foot, Tony Abbott would never have kept silent.

In fact, the harshest criticism Mr Shorten has made in relation to Mr Morrison’s gaffe is that “we need people who know what they’re doing.”

Hmm, that’s telling ‘em.

“Parliament has yet again missed the point.

“A man has been killed while in our care. We should be debating why this happened and how we can stop it happening again, not wasting time in another Liberal/Labor tit-for-tat.

“Where is Parliament’s moral compass? Today’s politicised theatre was a waste of everyone’s time.”

Greens MP Adam Bandt

 

Far from a return to the badgering and heckling that Abbott was so famous for in Opposition, there are times when it is necessary for the Opposition to do its job and oppose policies that are in neither Australia’s best interests, nor the vulnerable people languishing in our offshore detention centres. 

And distasteful though it may be, heckling the government and prodding public outrage is what shapes the political views of many Australians.

Yet Bill Shorten and company continue to stand silently by in the face of increasingly haphazard and disgraceful action that the UN labels “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Labor remains welded alongside the government for a hardline approach to asylum seekers. How deeply disappointing that on the extremely rare occasion of such government unity it comes at the expense of thousands of vulnerable, suffering men, women and children who have put their lives at risk asking Australia for help. 

Yet, there may be some change afoot in the Labor Party, led by the ambitious young NSW Senator and powerbroker, Sam Dastyari. Mr Dastyari, who as a child came to Australia as an Iranian refugee, advocates a “compassionate” approach to the asylum seeker debate. It’s a welcome relief that at least one Labor MP is willing to stand up to mainstream opinion.

Mr Shorten, if you haven’t figured out a definitive asylum seeker policy, why not take a more compassionate approach? Treat people as people. The number of refugees in the world is growing. No ‘guarantee’ to ‘stop the boats’ is going to make them disappear. As Malcolm Fraser wrote recently, “They are not fleeing for a sea change, but for their lives.”

Compassion may not appeal to today’s popular hardline approach. But just as you give asylum seekers a chance, you give Australians a chance. A chance to understand the issues and reasons why people become refugees. And a chance to discard the fear-mongering and racist propaganda that has polluted this debate and attitudes to asylum seekers for so many years.

You may need one heck of a marketing policy, Mr Shorten, but I reckon you could pull it off.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra.