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Many shadow Immigration Ministers in the Labor Party
Since the Tampa stand-off in 2001, Labor in opposition has gone through a long line-up of Shadow Immigration Ministers. From left to right against the backdrop of the 2002 Woomera breakout, they are Tony Burne, Julia Gillard, Laurie Ferguson, Nicola Roxon, Stephen Smith, and the first Immigration Minister under the Rudd government, Senator Chris Evans.

Labor abandons its 'small' Excision Zone

Does Chris Evans dump Labor's zone, does he prefers Howard's 4600-island excision?

Since the Tampa stand-off in 2001, Labor in opposition has gone through a long conga-line (pun intended!) of Shadow Immigration Ministers. They're all in the picture on this page.

Regrettably, this page is a sample of the Labor Party's ongoing retreat on its policy of justice for asylum seekers.

It's not just conservative governments in Australia that want to torture asylum seekers who have the temerity to ask for help. Australian Labor assists in this torture.

What they achieved:

Immigration shadow spokesman Stephen Smith introduced a debate at the 2004 Labor National Policy Conference at the Sydney Harbour Convention Centre about Labor's dissent with John Howard's Excision zone of 4.600 islands (see the map) and about Labor's proposals to just maintain Christmas Island and the Cocos and Keeling Island group to the zone, reversing the excision of the thousands of remaining islands, if Labor would win Government.

Julia Gillard wasn't too nice on at least one level: she wrote, while Simon Crean was the Parliamentary Labor leader, in 2003, a "pushing the boats back" policy. Read more about this here.

Laurie Ferguson? Ummm, well, he put thousands of refugee advocates offside within weeks of his appointment. See Project SafeCom's Educating Laurie campaign here and here.

Tony Burke spoke at the 2007 Labor National Policy Conference, and called John Howard's excision zone "crazy". We're still applauding that line in his speech, also because it assumed that Labor would dump that 'crazy zone' - but alas, Tony Burke did not become Immigration Minister under the Rudd government - he went on to chat forever with the farmers as an Agriculture Minister.

About this page

This page intends to clarify where Labor has stood in relation to the "huge" excision zone introduced by the Howard government in 2005, especially because of serious ambivalence about the Excision Zone shown by the Immigration Minister Chris Evans in the beginning of 2008. The page shows some snapshots from media sources and policy debates and documentation of Labor Conferences.

Quick links to the sections on this page

Australia's Forbidden Zones

The two images represent the Coalition government's 4,600-island Asylum Seeker Excision Zone. Click them to open a larger version.

Forty-six hundred islands off the coast of Australia are excluded from having to comply with Australia's refugee laws, in one of the country's harsh denials of the rights of asylum seekersPerhaps we know the history of this issue well by now: during the debate over the Tampa Bills in 2001, Labor under leader Kim Beazley folded as an effective opposition and voted with the Howard government to introduce 'just a small' Excision Zone - where a few islands (Christmas Island, the Cocos and Keeling Islands, the Cartier Island group and Ashmore Reef) would be excised from Australia 'for immigration purposes'.

More bluntly, this means that on all occasions these islands are indeed a part of Australia, and you're on Australian territory, but not if you're an asylum seeker, seeking Australia's help which is your good international right available to you under the United Nations Convention for the Status of Refugees. But there was more to come ... John Howard wanted it all: he wanted to excise all surroundings of Australia; he wanted to excise all islands.

Australia's Refugee Excision ZoneSo, Howard, who could be very, very patient when he was Australia's Prime Minister, waiting for years to pounce and strike, waited. He waited until his Coalition government controlled both the Lower House - the Parliament - and the Senate. Once the Senate turned over in July 2005 as a result of the changes brought about at the Federal election in December 2004, Howard struck.

He did not need to change legislation, he just had to change "the regulations" governing the laws that had previously been passed. The Migration Amendment Regulations 2005 (No. 6) passed Parliament in August 2005 - but the Senate resisted: Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett put a Motion to Disallow the regulation - and his Motion was supported by Greens, Democrats and Labor - and Labor did so vigorously, see the record of the debate on our website here.

Senator Bartlett's Disallowance Motion was lost, because nobody in the Coalition government chose to vote with the Motion and stop the Excision Zone, and because the Family First Senator Steve Fielding voted with the government and opposed the motion. But Labor had spoken, and had done so fiercely. Read the speeches and you'll agree.

Related pages

27 February 2008: The Senate debates Australia's 'Excision Zone' - There's no reason in 2008 for anyone in Labor to argue that the issue of John Howard's extraordinary excision zone 'has not been discussed'. When the former government pushed through changes to that exclusion zone for refugees in 2005, Labor supported a Disallowance motion put by Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett.

23 February 2008: What !!! - No Royal Commission??? - The Rudd government and Immigration Minister Chris Evans have moved very swiftly to undo some serious damage done to the asylum processing system under the previous government, but there has also been some serious back-tracking and summer-saulting backflips - one of them on Labor's furious former commitment to a Royal Commission into the Immigration Department.

24 January 2008: Howard Mandarins and Labor Ministers - while some advocates seem to ride a wave of euphoria that followed the November 2007 Federal election that saw John Howard assigned to the political scrap heap, Immigration Minister Chris Evans' trip to Indonesia has called forth some critical comments for more senior commentators amongst our ranks.

27 November 2007: The ALP's me-too refugee policy: Australia will keep turning the boats back - The Howard Years have finally come to an end with a resounding victory for the Rudd camp, and while we know that we will be 'more amongst friends' than before, there is still a lot of work ahead for us, in terms of creating a wholehearted implementation of Australia's obligations as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

28 April 2007: What you told Kevin Rudd and Tony Burke - "We decided who will come in to this country and the circumstances in which they arrive when we signed and ratified the Refugee Convention..." This page lists a selection of comments to ALP Opposition leader Kevin Rudd and Labor's Immigration spokesman Tony Burke MP in the Project SafeCom online letter campaign during April 2007.

 :::UPDATED::: 10 April 2007: Alcatraz Down Under - The monstrosity is nearly complete... - Like a gigantic scar cutting through the pristine wilderness, the Christmas Island detention centre blights not just the hillside of the island, but also the Australian psyche.

10 April 2007: You told Labor what you thought: The letter writing campaign to Kevin Rudd and Tony Burke - During the last half of April 2007 hundreds of people wrote to Labor, prior to its National Policy Conference in Sydney. Here's the text of the letter and some of the concerns about Labor's policy relating to unannounced boat arrivals as expressed in the media.

Govt denies backflip on island excision

The Age
David Crawshaw, AAP Canberra (Press Gallery)
February 21, 2008 - 3:27PM

The Rudd government has denied claims it has reneged on a pledge to return thousands of offshore islands to Australia's migration zone.

The Howard government removed about 4,600 islands from the migration zone in 2005, preventing boat people who land there from accessing Australian law and claiming asylum in Australia.

Labor resolved at its 2007 national conference to keep Christmas and Cocos islands and the Ashmore and Cartier reefs out of the migration zone.

"To further deter people smugglers, Labor will continue the excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia's migration zone," the party's policy platform states.

The document does not mention any commitment to reverse the excision of all the remaining islands.

However, then Labor immigration spokesman Tony Burke told the 2007 conference that the removal of thousands of islands from the migration zone was "crazy", and Labor in office would reverse it.

"(The Howard government) have excised a further 3,000-4,000 islands. We would return them to the migration zone," Mr Burke told the conference.

But that line in Mr Burke's address has been removed from a copy of his speech posted on the Labor Party's website.

A record of edits to the web page reveals the reference was removed after February 12 this year.

A refugee group is now questioning the Rudd government's commitment to ending the two-tier migration system, in which asylum seekers who reach the mainland are treated differently to those who land on islands in Australia's northern waters.

Project SafeCom spokesman Jack Smit accused Immigration Minister Chris Evans of "undermining his own party's policy".

"If he thinks he's got too much power he has a chance to reduce some of it," he said, referring to the minister's admission at Senate estimates this week that he felt uncomfortable with the power he had to intervene in individual migration decisions.

But a spokesman for Senator Evans said there had been no promise in Labor's policy platform to reverse the excision of the 4,600 islands and no decision had been made on whether it would be maintained.

"As the Labor platform states, the government will continue with the excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia's migration zone," he said.

"No decisions have been made about the excision of other islands."

Senator Evans has already moved to end the Pacific solution with the departure of the last remaining refugees on Nauru this month.

Labor plans to process asylum seekers on Christmas Island, where the federal government has built a new detention centre, rather than on Nauru or PNG's Manus Island.

The Greens say Labor has clearly reneged on its commitment.

"Erasing lines from past speeches is not the action of a government seeking to be transparent and accountable," Greens senator Kerry Nettle told AAP.

"The Labor conference was given the clear impression (by Mr Burke) that Labor would reverse the bulk of the excision.

"Labor are backflipping on a clear election commitment."

The excision of islands from the migration zone was "mean and tricky" and should be reversed, Senator Nettle said.


New doubts on Labor promise to change asylum seeker law

The West Australian
Rhianna King, Canberra
Tuesday February 19, 2008

There are growing doubts that Labor will go through with a promise to scrap a Howard government policy which prevents asylum seekers who reach thousands of islands in around Northern Australia from claiming that they have landed in Australia and applying for refugee status under Australian law.

Refugee advocates have accused the Federal Government of abandoning its softer approach to asylum seekers after Immigration Minister Chris Evans said he was yet to decide whether Labor would reassess the status of 4600 islands "excised" from Australian territory for the purpose of immigration law.

Under the former government's so-called Pacific Solution, asylum seekers who reach the excised zone - including Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef off WA - are considered to be "offshore" and their refugee claims are not dealt with under Australian law.

[not available online]

1. Before the ALP 2004 Conference

"Remember, all ALP state branches voted to remove the excision of Christmas Island from Australian territory. [Carmen Lawrence MP] is now the leader of those members and supporters, and many may be galvanised by her stand to hang around and keep fighting or return to the party and get active. The next battleground is the ALP's national conference."

Margo Kingston, Sydney Morning Herald, December 6, 2002: "Why Carmen chose to fight on"

2. The 2004 ALP Policy Conference

Mark Hearn: Enduring Labor Values?

Report of the 43rd ALP National Conference
29-31 January 2004

Shadow Immigration Minister, Stephen Smith, introduced the debate on asylum seekers by outlining the reforms to Commonwealth policy the parliamentary leadership recommended to conference which sought to balance the conflicting pressures of principle and public opinion: all children to be released from mandatory detention; Christmas Island, 'a magnet for people smugglers', to remain excised from Australia's migration zone, although other islands closer to the mainland excised by the Howard Government would be restored to the migration zone; an end to the disgraceful 'Pacific Solution'; Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) to be made consistent with the UN Refugee Convention and restricted to two years - after which the onus was placed on the Commonwealth to prove that the asylum seeker was not entitled to permanently remain in Australia; mandatory detention for 'unauthorised arrivals' would remain but the Commonwealth would have to decide the asylum seekers' refugee status within 90 days, in most cases, and all claims within 12 months. It was Labor's intention, Smith, argued, 'to stop demeaning people who come here seeking our protection'.

In response, Carmen Lawrence argued that the policy of mandatory detention, introduced by the Keating Government in 1992, had failed. Australians should not fear the few refugees that arrived on our shores. Lawrence, outlining the measures supported by Labor for Refugees, said that asylum seekers should be subject only to a brief period of detention for health and security checks. Christmas Island was part of Australia and should be restored to the nation's migration zone; TPV's should be replaced by permanent protection visas. The policy proposed by Smith was still too close to the Howard Government's position. Lindsay Tanner supported Lawrence's amendment and said that Labor had to break with Howard's strategy of 'fomenting racial division and fear for political gain'. Matt Collins of Labor for Refugees said that Labor's revamped national conference promised rank-and-file participation, but the proposed policy did not deliver participation or reflect the views of the rank and file. Julia Gillard rejected the comparisons between Labor and the Howard Government's policies: no element of the recommended policy, which was consistent with the UN Refugee Convention, was racist. Acknowledging the electoral sensitivity of the refugee issue, Gillard observed that 'we have to draft a policy that can win public support'. The vote on the Lawrence-Tanner amendment was taken to a count and was lost 166 for, 226 against. The measures outlined by Smith were adopted as Party policy.

3. The 2007 ALP Policy Conference

Australia's great shame on refugees

The Age
Robin Rothfield
August 26, 2006
On our website here


Labor for Refugees was very active in promoting its more humane agenda at the 2004 ALP national conference and this led to significant improvements compared with the then Government policy in relation to, first, children not being kept in detention centres, and to 90 per cent of refugee claims being determined within 90 days, and an end to the Pacific Solution.

But there were three areas in which the national conference adopted policy contrary to the submissions of Labor for Refugees.

These were the continued excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia's migration zone, with the effect that it would not be possible under Australian migration law to process asylum seekers reaching those places by boat; the continuation of mandatory detention (Labor for Refugees' policy was for a brief detention solely for the purpose of checks on identity, security and health); and the continuation of the system of temporary protection visas for boat arrivals who qualified for refugee status. [Source]


Excision; Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs)

Tony Burke MP
[At the time] ALP Shadow Minister for Immigration
Speech to ALP National Conference
27th April 2007

Thank you, delegates.

I support the amendments moved by Duncan Kerr and John Sutton but cannot support the last amendment just moved then by Avis Meddings.

Delegates, no one should see our position on the excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) and Ashmore Reef as being some triumph of pragmatism over principle.

Wanting to stop a repeat of SIEV X is good compassionate policy. Wanting to make sure that we do not create an environment again where you get the numbers 146, 142, and 65. The number of children, the number of women, the number of men who drowned on that vessel and making the mistake where that vessel was heading.

It was heading from Indonesia, in the opposite direction to the rest of Australia because, due to an accident of colonial history, Christmas Island was close and it was in Australia's migration zone.

The reason I gave at the beginning of this debate for us getting rid of the policy of TPVs was because that policy encouraged people to put their lives at risk on the high seas. We didn't know it at the time we supported it, but the results are now in.

The results are now in and show that when the TPV policy was introduced, the number of people putting their lives at risk on the high seas went up. But the results are also in that when that number plummeted completely coincides with the when we supported the excision of Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef, and Cocos (Keeling).

The Government has gone on with some crazy ideas since then. They have excised a further 3000-4000 islands. We would return them to the migration zone because these arguments don't apply to that.

Last year the Government tried to excise the two islands that were left. One is called Tasmania. The other is called the mainland. And Labor was right to oppose that because this argument didn't apply.

But for Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) and Ashmore Reef, we should not pretend that we are not taking the compassionate option. It is good Labor policy to try to make sure that people come here in a way that is safe.

Any policy that encourages people to put their lives at risk on the high seas, no matter how well intentioned, it is one that we are right to oppose and I urge the conference to oppose that amendment.

Left to create China crisis for Rudd

The Australian
Steve Lewis and Cath Hart
April 12, 2007

KEVIN Rudd faces a potentially embarrassing push from Labor's Left to oppose a China free trade agreement amid concerns it will cost thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Labor's commitment to tougher migration laws is also likely to be challenged by a pro-refugee ginger group at the ALP's national conference later this month.

The twin challenge to Mr Rudd's preferred policy platform comes as senior Left figures continue to build support for their push to retain the ban on new uranium mines.


The Australian understands that immigration spokesman Tony Burke may face resistance to retaining a policy of excising Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands from the migration zone.

Senior Labor sources said they suspected the Labor for Refugees group would oppose retaining the policy.

Labor for Refugees spokesman Danny Faddoul said the group was still deciding how to amend the policy on the excision zone.


4. Confirmed at Conference 2007: ALP Policy

Immigration: a Link to Australia's Future Growth

From the ALP website > ALP National Platform and Constitution > Chapter Thirteen - Respecting Human Rights and a Fair Go for All

  1. Labor will ensure immigration levels are set within the framework of a population policy fashioned in Australia's interest and consistent with international and humanitarian commitments. The system of setting immigration targets year by year without any underlying rationale or long-term policy framework has contributed to declining public confidence in the program. Moving to long-term planning will achieve greater stability and confidence.

  2. Labor is committed to maintaining a non-discriminatory immigration policy. Labor recognises the economic and social contribution that has been made by immigrants and refugees throughout our nation's history. Labor regards Australia's diversity as a source of national strength and nation building and will consistently oppose those who seek to poison Australia's social cohesion and who foster extremism, hatred or ethnic division.

  3. Labor will ensure that the current system and criteria for granting visitor visas is addressed and that a more equitable, flexible, fair and non-discriminatory system is implemented while at all times maintaining the integrity of our immigration program.

  4. Labor believes in an orderly immigration system, a system based on the rule of law, a system of integrity in which the Australian people will have confidence and trust.

  5. For the Australian people to have confidence in the administration of our immigration system, it must be built upon rigorous procedures and processes, which protect our national interest and our national borders.

  6. We must also treat individuals fairly and with dignity. To treat individuals fairly requires that they are dealt with in a speedy and efficient manner, where decisions are based on fair procedures and subject to appropriate review.

  7. Protecting our national interest and our national borders requires zero tolerance for people smugglers, who will be subject to harsher penalties to deter their activities and stop unauthorised boat arrivals.

  8. It is also in our national interest to conduct ourselves as a good international citizen, to do our fair share for those who are subject to persecution and who need protection.

  9. Labor will ensure that our borders are secure and that the processing and detention of asylum seekers is fair.

  10. Labor will administer a fair and flexible refugee and humanitarian program. While acknowledging that Australia has one of the world's most generous humanitarian programs, Labor will ensure that unforeseen world events that necessitate special responses can be accommodated. Labor will examine immigration intake consistent with a population policy for nation building and will work with regions seeking population growth to find options to assist additional immigration. Labor will ensure that Australia's non-refoulement obligations under international law are met.

  11. Labor's refugee and asylum seeker policy will be based on the following principles:

    • In accordance with the core Australian principles of fairness and decency, when people flee persecution and reach Australia the persecution must end.

    • Labor will ensure that all asylum claims must be processed fairly, independently and free from any political or diplomatic interference.

    • Australia should comply with the letter and the spirit of the obligations Australia has voluntarily assumed by signing the Refugee Convention and other relevant international instruments.

    • Labor will seek to lead world debate on the new agreements and understandings required to ensure that the Convention and the international protection system function effectively over the long-term, including encouraging countries in our region to become signatories to the existing Refugee Convention.

    • Labor will develop further multilateral solutions, recognising the importance of regional neighbours, with the aim of eradicating people smuggling, deterring secondary movement and enabling refugees to access processing and appropriate settlement outcomes.

    • Australia should seek to eradicate people smuggling, which is an organised criminal activity that costs lives, by effective law enforcement as well as relevant international agreements.

    • As a matter of fairness, Australia should seek to assist the world's most vulnerable whether these people are within or beyond our immediate line of sight.

    • Australia should take its fair share of refugees for resettlement and contribute a fair share to international aid efforts and UNHCR to alleviate the pressing humanitarian needs of displaced persons.

    • Asylum claims made in Australia should be assessed in a manner which is both fast and affords procedural fairness. Those found to be refugees under the Refugee Convention should be provided with appropriate settlement outcomes and services, while those without successful refugee or humanitarian claims should be quickly returned.

    • Detention of asylum seekers should only be used for health, identity and security checks. Children and family groups should initially be placed under supervision within the community. In other circumstances, detention would remain mandatory for the duration of these initial check.

    • Conditions of detention must be humane and appropriate to the needs of asylum seekers, with appropriate alternatives to detention centres made to meet the needs of unaccompanied children and family groups.

    • The length and conditions of detention must be subject to review and detention centres managed by the public sector.

  12. Labor will end the so-called "Pacific Solution", with its huge cost to Australian taxpayers.

  13. Labor recognises that the arbitrary 45-day-rule results in legitimate asylum seekers on bridging visas being unnecessarily denied the right to work while their claim is being processed. It also prevents immigration officers from denying work rights to frivolous claims lodged within the 45-day-period. Labor will work to develop guidelines based on merit so that frivolous or vexatious visa applications will be denied those rights, instead of applying an arbitrary 45-day-time limit.

  14. Labor will process claims quickly through a new Refugee Determination Tribunal, with appeals to Federal Magistrates.

  15. Labor will create an Australian Coastguard to strengthen our borders, increasing Australia's capacity to prevent illegal fishing and smuggling operations. Labor will implement harsh penalties for people smugglers, including life sentences for the worst of the people smugglers while pursuing strong international and regional arrangements to deter secondary movements of asylum seekers.

  16. To further deter people smugglers, Labor will continue the excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia's migration zone.

  17. Labor will administer a fairer and more balanced immigration program. The ratio of skilled to family migration will be tailored to meet Australia's needs.

  18. Labor will review the current asylum seekers' appeal mechanism to ensure that its decision making and operation is both cost efficient, fair and consistent. While the rights of asylum seekers to seek judicial review must be maintained, it is important that a streamlined and more formal system of appeal is instituted to provide a better filter and alleviate the higher courts' immigration caseload burden.

  19. Asylum seekers who are independently determined to be refugees under the Migration Act 1958 will be given permanent protection.

  20. Labor will maintain the Temporary Humanitarian Visa for situations where temporary safe haven is required.

  21. Labor will ensure that adequate resources are allocated to Australia's overseas immigration posts to liaise and maintain relationships with local authorities to prevent or minimise illegal immigration. The dangers facing people undertaking this dangerous activity will be emphasised and information on Australia's refugee programs made available. Labor will also ensure that close political and diplomatic relations are maintained with all countries where known people smuggling operations exist and where there is a high incidence of illegal immigration.

  22. Labor will ensure that the highest level of service and coordination is restored and adequate resources are provided to organisations that assist in the settlement and counselling of newly arrived migrants and refugees, recognising the value of volunteer contribution in these areas whilst not exploiting their goodwill.