The most contentious question heading into Labor’s national conference this week was how the party would deal with asylum seekers. Now we know the answer.
The most contentious question heading into Labor’s national conference this week was how the party would deal with asylum seekers. Now we know the answer.

Labor’s new asylum seeker policies

THE most contentious question heading into Labor's national conference this week was how the party would deal with asylum seekers.

Now we know the answer.

As delegates negotiated behind the scenes on Monday, Bill Shorten told the conference he would maintain offshore processing and continue the current government's policy of turning back boats.

"It is not a crime to come to this country, but it is a crime to exploit vulnerable people. We cannot, we must not and we will not permit the reopening of their trade, and the drownings and loss of life it causes," he said.

But Mr Shorten also revealed a suite of new policy measures, and promised to adopt a more compassionate approach than Scott Morrison.

"I believe that Australia can meet our international humanitarian and legal obligations without compromising our national security or strong border protection," he said.

"Labor will offer policies that are strong, compassionate and sustainable."

Mr Shorten said border protection "has never meant leaving men, women and children to languish for years in indefinite detention".

"It has never meant allowing mental and physical health to deteriorate. It has never meant fighting every step of the way against medical advice."

Mr Shorten promised Labor would commit $500 million over the next five years to support the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"This funding will directly improve orderly regional processing and resettlement in the region, and countries closer to where refugees originally come from," he said.

"It will deny people smugglers a product to sell."

Should he become prime minister, Mr Shorten will step up Australia's efforts to stop people smugglers "at the source", tripling the number of AFP officers fighting the trade overseas from four to 12.

He will immediately negotiate an agreement with New Zealand to resettle refugees there, in a deal similar to the one Malcolm Turnbull secured with the United States, and approach other countries as well.

And Mr Shorten will expand the current sponsorship program for refugees, which allows businesses, religious institutions and other parts of the community to help asylum seekers settle in Australia.

Labor will increase the program from 1000 places per year to up to 5000.

"This would be in addition to the existing humanitarian intake, not instead of it. So we will take more refugees as part of our migration mix," Mr Shorten said.

The change will be phased in over time.

The Labor leader accused Mr Morrison of "doing the dirty work for the people smugglers" by insisting Labor's policies would restart the insidious trade.

"They are signalling criminal syndicates to try their hand again. They should be ashamed," he said.

Later on Monday, the conference voted to support each of Mr Shorten's new policies. Shadow Immigration Minister Shayne Neumann called it "the most progressive, strong, robust and compassionate platform Labor has ever proposed".

He said Labor would adopt the crossbench's policy to move asylum seekers requiring medical attention of Nauru and Manus Island.

"We will end indefinite detention of refugees on Manus and Nauru," he said.

"We will improve the medical transfer process to make sure that sick people get the care they need.

"We will prioritise the opinions of treating clinicians."

But the show of unity was briefly disrupted when Andrew Giles moved this amendment:

"Labor will abolish the fast track assessment process. Those who have had their claims rejected under the unfair fast track assessment process will be provided with access to an independent merits review."

Labor does want to get rid of the fast track assessment process, but the second part of the amendment was more contentious.

Mr Giles hit out at the idea that his proposal would give rejected asylum seekers "a second chance".

"That's not true. That's a lie. It's offering them a chance. It's offering them an opportunity to exercise their human right to seek asylum in Australia," he said.

"They have not been given the chance to make their case."

Mr Neumann spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it would "overwhelm the already clogged review and court system".

"It means that people who are seeking protection will be waiting to do so for longer," Mr Neumann said.

There were a significant number of delegates supporting each side, but the amendment was ultimately shot down.

In a final condemnation of the government, Ged Kearney moved a resolution attacking its "cruel and heartless treatment" of refugees.

"We cannot let this conference pass without talking about Manus and Nauru," she said.

"Labor will not let people languish in indefinite detention. That is not what Labor is about."

The resolution was part of a compromise between Labor's factions, worked out behind the scenes. Ms Kearney acknowledged it didn't go far enough for some delegates.

"I know that this motion is not perfect, and many may argue that, but it does get us closer. And it is an important statement, because we need this on the record from this conference," Ms Kearney said.

"We cannot continue to sit by while this government tortures people on Manus and Nauru with indefinite decision.

"The cruelty of Dutton and Morrison is intolerable.

"This government can and must act immediately to take up offers from New Zealand.

"They can and must support the medical evacuation of refugees who need medical treatment to Australia, and their families."

There was applause from the crowd as the resolution was carried.

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