Shorten embraces the boat turnback policy he previously condemned

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten faces a battle over boat turnbacks at the ALP national conference. Joe Castro/AAP

Bill Shorten has finally formally reversed his position on turning back boats, seeking to remove the one big difference between Labor and the government in their hardline stands on asylum seekers.

Shorten, who last year argued there was no evidence turnbacks worked, said on Wednesday night: “I think it’s clear that the combination of regional resettlement, with offshore processing, and also the turnback policy, is defeating people smugglers.”

Shorten said a Labor government, wanting to prevent drownings at sea, would need the turnback option.

He conceded the issue was difficult for Labor in part because it involved the admission that the ALP made mistakes in government.

The ALP attacked the Coalition policy at the election, saying it would not work and would alienate Indonesia. Last year, Shorten slapped down his immigration spokesman Richard Marles when Marles left the way open for turnbacks. But recently Shorten has been preparing to make the shift himself.

“I can no longer escape the conclusion that Labor, if we form a government, needs to have all the options on the table,” Shorten said on the ABC’s 7.30 program. He also flagged that he would propose a bigger refugee intake.

But Shorten still has to face the ALP national conference, starting on Friday, where turnbacks is expected to be a divisive issue.

The Labor for Refugees group is strongly resisting the embrace of turnbacks. Co-convenor Robin Rothfield said it would put its opposition to a meeting of national left conference delegates on Thursday and he expected the left to endorse it. He said that two unions aligned to the right that members of the group had met this week were “on our wave length”.

In an opinion article in the Herald Sun, Marles makes a strong call on the conference to give a future ALP government the option of turnbacks.

“Labor continues to have legitimate operational concerns about turnbacks,” Marles writes.

“The government has steadfastly refused to provide answers that would allay the concerns of Australians. The community is entitled to know the facts. However, ignoring this policy would be irresponsible and would risk sending a dangerous message to people smugglers.

"I believe that provided it can be done safely, a future Labor government must have the option to undertake turnbacks. At all times, Australia will meet its international obligations.”

Marles points out that Labor once backed the policy.

“That is the position that Labor held in the past, with then-leader Kevin Rudd signalling his intent to engage in turnbacks before the 2007 election.”

Marles writes that Labor will not risk putting the people smugglers back in business with the inevitable hundreds of drownings.

“This is not about pandering to the politics of fear, it is about having a sensible, safe set of policies that will stop people from dying. It is also about making sure that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about Labor’s position when it comes to the question of our borders.”

Marles admits that despite Labor’s best intentions, “a terrible loss of life took place on Labor’s watch.

"We did not get it right then, but we are very clear now about making sure we don’t repeat those mistakes.

"We won’t allow people smugglers to reopen the perilous journey from Java to Australia again.”

Labor needs “to be able to use every policy setting at our disposal to ensure that this passage is never reopened”.

If the flow of people re-started “we would be consumed by it again, as we were when we were last in government.

"It would engulf us to the point that it is all we could do.

"The toxic debate would remain.”

Marles said the national conference “will require a difficult but dignified debate and the making of a tough decision”.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan, with Australian Institute director Ben Oquist, here or on iTunes.

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