Richard Marles’s speech to the Sydney Institute
3 December 2015

There is much that is good in this speech: a recognition that serious harm is being done to the c. 2000 people detained on Manus and Nauru and to the asylum-seekers currently in Australia; support for an increase in humanitarian intake; support for UNHCR; advocacy of a right to work for those seeking refugee status; concern for the living conditions of detainees, still in tents.

One of the striking features of the speech is Mr Marles’s bitterness toward opponents and critics. “Large parts of this debate are irrational and uninformed”, “mired in emotion, misinformation and hysteria”, “inconvenient facts are cast aside in pursuit of rallying catch cries and platitudes”; their views are “utterly abhorrent”, they are “parroting … lines”, they are “intellectually dishonest”, they refuse to “accept responsibility”, and so on. Marles and other Labor politicians seem to think that people who oppose detention on Manus and Nauru don’t care about drownings.


Richard Marles’s words are in italics. These are excerpts. If the complete speech does not appear in the right-hand frame, go to

Values and policies

It has been Labor’s belief that immigration policy cannot be determined by reference to achieving political outcomes but rather by the values which are common to us as Australians.

No one in politics ever really ignores political outcomes and no one should. There has to be an interplay between one’s own values and the values and opinions of other people, to develop policies that will be right and also acceptable to a majority of electors.

Attacks on people smugglers and warnings about drownings convey to the public that the two major parties will not allow asylum seekers to come by boat (they can’t come any other way unless they qualify for a visa). This reassures voters who just don’t want them to come.

They may have good reasons that should be addressed. Most asylum-seekers do not speak English, they do not share European traditions, their family practices often shock us, they have religious beliefs we don’t understand or sympathise with, some of them may be violently antagonistic to existing Australian society; we wonder whether all these people can be housed, we wonder about what effect the arrival of so many people will have on our economy. A multi-cultural society should be able to meet these concerns. Asylum-seekers are screened, there are induction and settlement programs, existing citizens can be organised to welcome newcomers. Multiculturalism does not exclude criticism of attitudes and practices. (On multiculturalism see my essay The Israel/Palestine Conflict: How did it begin? Will it ever end?.) There should be more dialogue about religion, more public discussion of religious toleration and other characteristics of an open society. We need more discussion on  how to respond to increased numbers of disadvantaged migrants, how to help them find a place in the Australian economy and what to do about those who do not.

I believe that Australians can understand and sympathise with the plight of the people who seek to migrate to Australia. People who have to leave their own country (abandoning property, employment, language, social networks), after a while have to move on to make a living (at that point them become economic migrants as well as refugees). They cannot settle in countries that deny them the right to work and deny access to education and medical services. They may finally take what they know to be a great risk in making a boat journey to a well-governed, economically prosperous country such as ours. It should not be beyond our politicians to explain all this to the Australian electorate.


At the ALP National Conference earlier this year, the party engaged in an open and frank discussion about what policy settings we would adopt in the next Labor Government. The focus of much of the media attention at our National Conference was on the issue of whether a Labor Government would turn back asylum seeker vessels if safe to do so.

A crucial question: Will a Labor government obtain the agreement of the Indonesian government? 

Richard Marles 27 May 2014,

Turning around rickety boats at sea is fraught with danger – for our service men and women and those aboard the vessels. As such we remain concerned about safety at sea. The other critical risk is to our relationship with Indonesia. The clandestine Operation Sovereign Borders is corroding this relationship. There is no more vivid demonstration of this point than the fact it caused the cancellation of a Prime Ministerial visit to Indonesia which was intended to heal the rift. This is the nonsense of pursuing a policy of regional cooperation from an autocratic standpoint. And a guns blazing, go it alone effort to rule our seas will not work over the long term. We simply must work with Indonesia, and our other neighbours on this issue. Labor supports a regional solution to this global challenge.


Rejecting turn-backs “would have been more than just an act of political convenience – it would have been act of policy recklessness that would have been projected into the murky underground world of people smugglers as a glimmer of hope that they could revive their trade in human misery under a future Labor Government. That someone in Jakarta – a former people smuggler now driving a taxi because he is out of business – is monitoring Australian domestic politics waiting for a sign that he can start marketing the deadly journey to desperate people is sadly not a myth.

People in intolerable situations are entitled to decide for themselves what risks to take. We have no right to punish them if they take risks we think are too great. It is not our business to inflict harsh treatment on some to deter others (on deterrence see below).

The refugee flow is not caused by people-smugglers. They facilitate movement and profit from it, but the cause is the intolerable situation of the people willing to take serious risks to move elsewhere. The flow is not caused by someone “marketing a deadly journey”; the boats start again when there is a demand. The demand will elicit a supply.

How bad an asylum-seeker's situation can be can be gathered from the Amnesty International report on conditions in Malaysia in 2010, A crucial point is the denial of the right to work (a universal human right, art. 23). To live, refugees have to work. If they work illegally they cannot enforce employment or other contracts and they are subject to blackmail and extortion. To escape slavery they need to move on.

Australian policy should be: to make their current situation better (e.g. by persuading countries in the region to recognise the right to work, to give them access to medical services and schooling) and to make it possible for them to move in less risky ways (e.g. by processing refugee claims earlier in their journey, by increasing opportunities for settlement, by giving up confiscation of boats and imprisonment of boat crew, by relaxing the requirement that carriers cannot bring a passenger with no visa, etc.). Australia should also do what it can (which won't be much) to reduce conflict in the countries from which refugees come.

Demonising people-smugglers ( motivates harsh treatment of the people who use their services.

Stopping the boats

Putting people smugglers out of business is what drove Labor in 2013 to heed the advice of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers and put in place the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG and Nauru. This has actually been the most important decision of any Australian Government in bringing an end to the journey from Java to Christmas Island. It was a decision that created a circuit breaker by removing any reason for people to embark on unseaworthy vessels and pursue the dangerous and, all too often, deadly journey that saw some 1200 men, women and children die on our border. The fact we have seen no drownings at sea since 2013 is without a doubt a remarkable accomplishment.

For centuries Indonesians have been sea-farers. The journey from Java to Christmas Island need be no more dangerous than other boat journeys in Indonesia. Australian government policies make it more dangerous than it need be--the policy of confiscating boats that bring asylum seekers guarantees that the boats will be decrepit; imprisoning crew guarantees that the crew, at least for the final stage, will be less competent and expendable (; not imprisoning juveniles makes it more likely that the crew will be juveniles (

How can we stop the drownings? There are three things the Australian government could easily do to reduce drownings, perhaps to zero: stop confiscating boats; stop imprisoning crew; remove the penalties threatened against carriers who bring passengers who do not have visas (, p. 3).

The drownings argument

Some people responded to our policy decisions by saying that they didn’t accept the “drownings argument”. I find this utterly abhorrent. What we saw play out on our borders over the last few years was not an argument. It happened. 1200 people lost their lives and this can’t be ignored just because it doesn’t fit comfortably with a particular argument.

“The drownings argument” refers to a family of arguments of the form: “To lessen the risk that people will drown, Australia should do X and/or Y and/or Z…”. 

Whether this is a good argument depends on X, Y and Z. For example, we might reduce the risk of drownings by processing asylum-seekers early in their journey, increasing our humanitarian intake, persuading other countries to increase their humanitarian intake and recognise the right to work, and so on.

People who reject the “drownings argument” are rejecting this particular version: “To lessen the risk that people will drown, we must deter boat journeys by inflicting bad consequences on people who survive the journey”.

The key concept here is deterrence. Deterrence means using terror (or something milder but still pretty bad) as a means of discouraging people from doing something.

People who reject this version are right. Mr Marles actually agrees with them. In his 27 May 2014 speech he said: “we must ensure that we never harm people as a form of deterrence”. (Though on 12 October 2014 he said in an email to me: “we do need to create deterrents from undergoing dangerous boat journeys”, and Andrew Leigh said, 24 March 2014, “we have to deter a sea journey with a one-in-twenty chance of death”, It may be that in such statements “deter” is being used loosely, without awareness of its etymology. Politicians need to get this clear.) Malcolm Turnbull's language suggests that Government policy is based on the idea of deterrence: “You could say we have a harsh border protection policy, but it has worked”,

Mr Marles claims that the Manus and Nauru centres were never meant to hold people for a long time--the idea was that people would be processed promptly and settled in some other country. In my opinion it was never realistic to expect prompt third-country settlement. Some 2000 people have been injured.  That this was not intentional would be small consolation to them, even if they believe it.  

If people sent to Manus and Nauru had been resettled promptly, the boats would still have come--it would have been  worthwhile to make the journey to achieve third-country settlement with Australia's sponsorship. (Similarly the "Malaysian solution", since it meant that people sent back to Malaysia would have had work rights, would not have stopped the boats.) To stop the boats detention has to be harsh and prolonged--harshness is really no accident.

Drownings elsewhere

Other people responded by saying we have simply pushed our problems elsewhere and that asylum seekers are drowning on someone else’s watch. This is completely incorrect. Our intelligence agencies and public servants have good visibility on this. And there is no evidence that this has occurred at all. To the contrary, the evidence is that lives have been saved.

I’d like to see the evidence. Has someone surveyed people crossing from Turkey to Lesbos to ask them would they have tried to go to Australia but for the deterrent effect of detention on Manus and Nauru? Is there some other sort of empirical evidence? The claim to “good visibility” is unfounded, I suspect. If people are desperate to move and their path is blocked in one direction they will go in another. (Routes: Their path in our direction has been blocked by a policy that seems to mean that if they survive they will be imprisoned indefinitely under inhumane conditions (even if this was not the intention), so they will go in a different direction.

What of those who do not go toward Europe but stay where they are? If (but for Manus and Nauru) they would have undertaken a dangerous sea journey they must regard their situation as very bad, bad enough that they would have risked drowning. They must still be in that situation. Do we care about that? To keep people in a situation from which they would have risked death to escape is no great humanitarian achievement.

Australian humanitarian intake

And so we announced that under Labor, Australia’s humanitarian intake would increase to 27,000 places.

According to the Platform, “Labor aspires to progressively increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 places per year” (emphasis mine).

What does “progressively” mean? On another site ( ) I find: “By 2025, Labor will increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 27,000”. Ten years is a long time in politics. “By 2025” means: We won’t do it, we hope our successors will.

To make this promise meaningful, Labor needs to say what increase they will make within their first term if elected in 2016.

Slandering Nauruans and Manusians

The Greens Party has frequently and recklessly perpetuated the notion that detention centres are hotbeds of violence, located in nations that are lawless and whose populations are complicit in it.

Later he says: In pursuit of an agenda of breaking the detention facilities on Nauru and Manus there are some voices who have spread fantastic claims of misinformation about what is occurring in these places. Much of this ultimately focuses on an appalling characterisation of Nauruans and Manusians as being lawless and dangerous. … But to assert that Nauruan men are habitually rapists or that Manusians are extremely violent is obviously offensive and bigoted. It bemuses me that people who come to this debate wearing the mantle of compassion can think that it is OK in the pursuit of an agenda to engage in a free-for-all on these island communities.

I’d like some quotations, links or references as evidence that people do say such extreme things. Meanwhile, I don’t believe it. I have never heard anyone say that Nauruan men are habitually rapists, etc. What some people do say, I believe truly, is that there is much violence and lawlessness in these places and detainees are often victims: they are mistreated by other detainees, by custodial staff, and by local people. Since they are being detained on Australia’s behalf in a situation where they find it difficult to protect themselves, Australia must accept responsibility for protecting them.

The phrase “wearing the mantle” of compassion insinuates that the critics are hypocrites. They behave "recklessly", they are "bigoted".

The future of the detainees

But an even more pressing issue is the fate of the near 2,000 people on Manus Island and Nauru.… It is utterly clear that the closing of these facilities or the bringing of any of the asylum seekers to Australia will result in asylum seeker vessels being put on the water once more and people drowning at sea again. Manus Island and Nauru must never be seen as a stopover on the way to Australia. And it is simply intellectually dishonest to advocate for the closure of the facilities on the one hand and not accept the responsibility for the consequences on the other. Those who advocate in this way deal themselves out of the debate.

Mr Marles says the critics are “intellectually dishonest”, they evade responsibility, they deal themselves out of the debate.

In view of Mr Marles's 2014 statement quoted above, “we must ensure that we never harm people as a form of deterrence”, it seems that the sufferings of the 2000 are not a means to the end of stopping the boats but collateral damage, a side-effect. (For some reflections on positions like this see

How much collateral damage is acceptable? Some of the detainees have been there for a long time (, and there is no end in sight.

Justification as collateral damage requires that some less-damaging alternative not be available. In fact there are other possibilities of stopping or reducing dangerous journeys, mentioned above. Another: Australia could issue special visas for people wishing to come here to apply for protection as refugees. (That won't happen, because it would trigger a "flood": that shows that the point of Australian policies is not to keep them safe, but to keep them out!)

Labor and the Coalition agree that detainees can leave only if (a) they go back to where they came from or (b) they accept resettlement in third countries (i.e. some place other than Australia). According to Labor, detention periods have become so long because the Coalition government has failed to find resettlement options, which a Labor government would have done sooner.

I think the LNP Goverment has really been trying--even to the extent trying to resettle people in Cambodia. Why would anyone believe that a Labor government would have had more success? The same policy, the same resources--but different results?


Of course, having rumour presented as fact is the collateral damage of this Government’s hopeless lack of transparency over offshore detention facilities. It has created a breeding ground for people to easily cast all facilities as terrible, unsafe and violent. This simply should not be how a modern country like Australia goes about its business. Transparency is the disinfectant of bad policy.

Yet Labor supported the Australian Border Force Act 2015. “Under the Act, it is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, for any person working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to reveal to the media or any other person or organisation (the only exceptions being the Immigration Department and other Commonwealth agencies, police, coroners) anything that happens in detention centres like Nauru and Manus Island”

Speaking out always has consequences even apart from the threat of imprisonment,

If this legislation succeeds in its purpose, the Government will be able to tell the public whatever it likes about Manus and Nauru without fear being contradicted by any whistleblower. “On-island matters”, like “on-water matters”, will become opaque.

On the importance of transparency see my speech to the 2014 ACT Labor Conference,

We would make it very clear that all those working within these facilities would be expected to speak out when they see a wrong. And we already have introduced a private members bill into Parliament to make it an offence not to report signs of child abuse where these are observed by those working in these facilities.

Mr Marles’s bill ( would require staff to report suspected child abuse to the Australian Border Force Commissioner (currently Michael Pezzullo). By virtue of the Australian Border Force Act 2015, Marles’s bill notwithstanding, they still face 2 years imprisonment if they tell anyone except their superiors.

Whose fault?

The Labor Party’s resolve to ensure people do not again die off our shores in pursuit of asylum should not be misjudged as Labor endorsing the way this Government operates its processing facilities.

The coalition tried and failed, Labor would have tried harder and succeeded? I think the problems go deeper. Detention in remote places in failing or at least very weak states will always be difficult and expensive. The difficulty of supervision is deliberate: offshore detention is intended to escape the supervision of courts, media and public opinion.

But to really resolve the fate of the bulk of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru there needs to be a credible third country option negotiated by the Australian Government. In this, the Coalition Government has been a signal failure.

But Labor would have succeeded? Why would anyone believe that?

However, it would be a first order of business for a Labor Government to pursue this. And in doing so a Labor Government would start by working with the UNHCR to seek their input about appropriate and viable third country resettlement arrangements.

That is good. What will the UNHCR be able to do? Are there really any third country options? What if the process drags on and on? How much more collateral damage will a Labor government inflict?

Final remarks

There is an array of means available to reduce dangerous boat journeys (see remarks above at various points). There are also means of disrupting and inhibiting people smuggling. All these means should be vigorously employed. The 2000 detainees should be resettled as soon as possible and the offshore detention centres closed permanently; never again should Australia send people to some other country for detention.

How can the 2000 be resettled? Here is a suggestion. Australia might make an arrangement with the European countries now trying to accommodate large numbers of Syrian refugees. Australia should offer to take (consenting) refugees the Europeans send if in return they accept for settlement the people from Manus and Nauru. (For the “Malaysia solution” Australia promised to take 4000 processed refugees in exchange for Malaysia’s accepting 800 asylum seekers; similarly Australia might need to accept several multiples of the 2000 detainees on Manus and Nauru.) Refugees now in Europe might well consent to be sent to Australia because it is an English-speaking country; in most parts of the world if people know a second language it is English.

This is not identical with Mr Marles’s idea of working through the UNHCR. An Australian government should enter bi-lateral negotiations directly with European countries, as well as working through the UNHCR.

New Zealand's repeated offer should be accepted. Tony Abbott rejected it because it would provide a "consolation prize", Detainees settled in NZ could be prevented from moving to Australia, if that were considered necessary.

But if no third-country resettlement can be found in the near future, the detainees should be brought to Australia. The Government and the opposition parties should in the very near future announce an agreed date for the end of  detention on Manus and Nauru.

Immigration should be a bipartisan issue. The handling of asylum seekers should be a bipartisan issue.

Very true. In fact it should be tri-partisan. The Greens have been talking good sense for a long time, Leaders of Labor, Liberal/National and Greens should meet privately and work out a humane solution for the Manus and Nauru detainees and communicate it to them as soon as possible—before the coming election.


John Kilcullen
26 April 2016

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