Row over asylum seekers hots up Australian election

Labour leader Bill Shorten with his family at a gathering to honour the victims of Orlando shooting. PIcture: AFP/Getty Images
Labour leader Bill Shorten with his family at a gathering to honour the victims of Orlando shooting. PIcture: AFP/Getty Images
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Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten rejected a newspaper report saying his centre-left Labour Party would welcome asylum seekers if it wins next month’s national election.

The story attacked Labour’s policy, when it was last in power, of giving refugees who arrived by boat permanent visas instead of the three-year visas the conservative government introduced in 2014.

Labour would get rid of the so-called temporary protection visas if it wins the 2 July election, but says that does not mean it easing up on illegal boat arrivals.

Opponents of the temporary visas argue they leave refugees with uncertain futures and the prospect they might one day be sent back to their homelands. The government argues the temporary visas are an essential part of their deterrent policies that have prevented any asylum seekers from successfully arriving on Australian shores by boat for almost two years.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government has boasted stopping the traffic of asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia in rickety boats, usually from Indonesian ports, is one of its greatest policy successes since it was elected in September 2013.

Mr Shorten blamed Mr Turnbull’s conservative Liberal Party for the newspaper using an image of a welcome mat to depict Labour’s message to asylum seekers.

“This is the same old Liberal Party trying to reheat their same old lies and fear campaign,” Mr Shorten said.

“Labour will have the same policy about stopping the boats. We will not put the people smugglers back into business,” he said.

Almost daily arrivals of boats carrying thousands of asylum seekers under a former Labour government were a hot-button issue in the 2013 election.

Labour now says it would continue the government’s tough deterrent policies, including using warships to tow back people-smuggling boats or putting asylum seekers in motorised lifeboats and setting them on course for the Indonesian coast.

The ruling party has accused Labour of undermining its policies, pointing to criticisms some Labour candidates have made of Australia’s policy of paying the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep Australia-bound asylum seekers in immigration camps.

Labor has promised, if elected, it would immediately talk to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees about resettling the hundreds of refugees languishing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Both Labour and the government refuse to resettle them in Australia.