The Politics    Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Do the right thing

By Rachel Withers

Image of Clare O’Neil speaking and gesturing with an index finger

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil speaks during Question Time, November 29, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

It is time for Labor to stop acting like LNP-lite on immigration detention

If any members of the Albanese government heard Greens Senator Nick McKim’s calls for sober reflection on the High Court’s indefinite detention ruling reasoning – asking the government, the opposition and the media to “take a deep breath” and “calm down” – they certainly didn’t act on it. For it took less than three hours for Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil to announce plans for a “preventive detention regime”, allowing the government to re-detain non-citizens convicted of serious crimes, after the court appeared to endorse the legality of such a scheme. Speaking on RN this morning, O’Neil sounded a lot like her predecessor, Peter Dutton, as she declared plans to create the “toughest preventative detention regime that is constitutionally possible”, saying she would lock up even those who haven’t committed serious crimes if she could. “We are not breaking for Christmas until we have a preventative detention regime in place,” she added, noting the Coalition had voted against Monday’s attempt to toughen restrictions, and calling for it to get on board. O’Neil is right in one respect: the Coalition has been playing “horrendous politics” with this for weeks now. So why is the Labor Party still playing along, buying into the ugly fearmongering, and doing whatever the opposition asks for? Why not take this moment to start a new dialogue and work with the crossbench, why not seek to do what is right? 

It is truly sad that this has turned into yet another racist moral panic, conducted at the whim of the Coalition and conservative media. As I wrote following the fast-tracking of laws imposing ankle bracelets and curfews on those released, the High Court decision could have been an important step forward for Australia, which seems unable to fix the dark situation our politics has created. Instead, it has become yet another reminder that we are a land of racist cops, with Peter Dutton holding the dog whistle. Labor knows that rushing bills is not a good idea; O’Neil said so herself on RN this morning, noting that the Coalition had a “pretty torrid history of rushing laws, doing it improperly and writing things that aren’t constitutional”. So it’s unclear why the government is dancing to Dutton’s tune, rushing through exactly what he asked for during Monday’s debate, while amending the government’s own bills to meet his demands. (It’s worth noting that the fast-tracked curfew laws already face two High Court challenges).

Here’s the thing: the Coalition and the Murdoch media are never going to give Labor credit for any of this, no matter how closely the government accedes to their demands. Speaking on Sky News, shadow home affairs minister James Paterson welcomed the court’s reasoning, saying it showed a preventive regime “could have been introduced three weeks ago”. (I see that the Coalition is back to arguing that there was no need to wait, after a brief spell arguing the opposite.) Liberal Senator Jane Hume used today’s appearance on Sunrise to demand O’Neil either resign or apologise over the current situation, once again ignoring basic facts, while Liberal deputy Sussan Ley undertook her usual shtick of asking why Albanese hadn’t fronted a press conference. It’s clear the opposition will never stop attacking the government on this stuff. In fact, the Coalition is going to go on claiming credit for these very Coalition-esque policies, not giving an inch while Labor betrays its own party platform. “HUMBLED ALP BACKS IN PETER’S PRINCIPLES,” declared The Australian’s front page, after Labor folded on Coalition demands for conditions. Honestly, what is the point?

The government doesn’t have to work with the opposition on this, or on anything. Labor doesn’t need Coalition votes, in either House, if it is willing to work with independents and the Greens. Albanese and co do not need to bend over backwards for Peter Dutton and do exactly as he demands on immigration detention or the Stage Three tax cuts or AUKUS – all areas in which they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t – so they might as well do the right thing, and the smart thing, if one looks at the changing nature of the electorate. As Senator McKim said yesterday afternoon, as he called for calm, “The parliament as a whole needs to stop panicking, reflect on these reasons in detail, and reject the base politics of fear and division.” Labor, in particular, needs to take a breath and reflect on its own reasons for doing what it is doing. And it would do well to consider why it continues to play ball with a man only interested in playing politics.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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