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A future Labor government would almost certainly turn back boats if any were coming

Opposition leader Bill Shorten faces a difficult policy problem with boat turn backs. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten is in a awkward place on the issue of boat turn backs.

Richard Marles’ suggestion that under certain conditions a Labor government might embrace the policy recognised reality. But the immigration spokesman’s comments were incendiary to many within Labor, and frustrating to others for taking attention off the government.

The official line is that the ALP’s policy hasn’t changed.

Marles, who lit the fire on Sunday, had the hose out on Monday. The government gloated at the apparent change and then the (well, sort of) retreat.

“The shadow minister … got turned back on turn backs,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison declared, a few days after Labor was trumpeting how Morrison’s colleagues were turning back his expansionist ambitions.

Many in Labor are waiting for Shorten (who is close to Marles) to have something to say publicly or in Tuesday’s caucus. The left will be listening carefully for any weasel words.

The leader is caught between the politics and the party. He has already stretched the tolerance of quite a few of his followers by his bipartisanship on the government’s tough national security legislation, the second tranche of which is due to go through parliament this week.

Left-winger Melissa Parke, who was a lawyer with the United Nations, says: “For Labor to support turn backs, there would need to be a change of policy at national conference. I don’t think this would occur because it would be against our Labor values and our commitment to uphold international law and human rights”.

Results dictate that Labor has to recognise that turning boats back has been one factor in stopping the people smuggling trade, though secondary to Kevin Rudd’s tough pre-election declaration that all arrivals would be sent offshore with no chance of resettlement in Australia.

Marles, interviewed on Sky, said on Sunday that the turn back policy “has had an impact”. Labor was “open minded” about it, but had anxieties revolving around safety and how it affected relations with the Indonesians, who “hate” it.

“If safety and the relationship with Indonesia can be satisfied, well then this is a totally different question”, and a Labor government “might” turn back boats. But those questions hadn’t been answered. Marles pointed to remarks from new Indonesia president Joko Widodo, who in a Fairfax Media interview flagged a strong line on sovereignty and warned against any repeat of Navy vessels straying into Indonesian waters.

On Monday, Marles said: “We’re open-minded about anything which saves lives at sea but we retain two real concerns about the turn back policy, and in this respect, our position has not changed”.

Pressed on whether he would argue in the election lead up that Labor would turn back boats if it were safe and didn’t erode the Indonesian relationship, Marles said: “I’m not going to walk down the path of answering hypotheticals”.

Privately, he told colleagues he wished he’d put things differently on Sunday.

Changing a position is difficult and often painful for a party. Labor has been adamant for a long time in its opposition to turn backs. In a 2011 background briefing organised by the Gillard government, the then-head of theiImmigration department Andrew Metcalfe said that while Howard’s policy of turning back boats was effective at the time it would not work again.

But events have overtaken predictions and Labor’s stance.

What of the two conditions?

The Coalition’s policy has been to turn boats back “where safe to do”, although secrecy has shrouded operations. A Labor government could make its own judgements about safety.

The Indonesians have periodically stated concerns about encroachments on their sovereignty, now reiterated, but whether the policy will be a problem in the future remains to be seen, partly depending on whether there are boats to be turned back.

All things being equal, by the time of a Labor government, whenever that might be, it’s likely turn backs would not be a big thing. If they were still needed, it’s probable Labor would keep the policy, arguing satisfactory conditions could be met. It would not want to risk a repeat of the boat trade starting again.

Meanwhile, Labor would do best to get past turn backs and give more of its attention to the plight of those asylum seekers stuck on Manus Island and Nauru.

There are plenty of points to pursue, questions to be asked. Papua New Guinea is still considering its attitude on resettlement for those found to be refugees. What is the Australian government doing to put pressure on it? Bad stories regularly emanate from Nauru.

We are not hearing enough from Labor about the plight of the unfortunate people in these places. As time goes on, Morrison, so successful in stopping the boats, is going to have increasing difficulties on those fronts. He’s sitting on powder kegs.

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