Today I recorded a speech to the Labor National Conference.  I did it because I was asked to.  They may not like it.


What I have to say to you today is not what I would have expected to say.

I do not expect you to agree with me.

Let me start by saying that in my view the current Prime Minister is the worst in our history. The current Government is probably the worst in our history.

But we also have the least effective Opposition in living memory.

It will not be news to you that a lot of people – at least those who think about their vote instead of voting out of habit – must be wondering whether either of the major parties is worth voting for. In my opinion, they aren’t.

There was a time when Labor stood for something. If it still stands for anything, it has been conspicuously quiet on the matter.

On asylum seekers, Labor’s record is patchy and getting worse. In the 2013 election campaign Labor tried to out-promise the Coalition on the cruelty with which it would treat boat people.

I know that asylum seeker policy might be seen as a niche issue, but we are now at the stage that it calls in question the character of the nation.

Labor’s refugee platform speaks in high-sounding terms of fairness and humanity, but it stays silent on the fact of deliberate, intentional cruelty to boat people.

How many Labor MPs have even been to Manus Island or Nauru?  When was the last time a Labor parliamentarian went to Manus Island or Nauru?  How much do Labor parliamentarians know about the shocking conditions in offshore detention?  Labor has not used its position to expose the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Government’s position.

The Coalition’s rhetoric says they are worried about asylum seekers drowning in an attempt to reach Australia, so they punish the ones who don’t drown. It is an intentionally hard line. It is a hard line which depends on a cruelty.

To an outsider, the only difference between the two major parties is this: the Coalition treat boat people and boasts about it; Labor would mistreat boat people, but is ashamed of it.

A voter recently wrote to 45 Federal MPs asking two simple questions:

“In your personal opinion, are asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat treated humanely?

“Do you consider that people who arrive in Australia informally and seek asylum should be called ‘illegal’?”

Nineteen of the MPs were Labor MPs. Fourteen of the Labor MPs ignored the letter. They didn’t even acknowledge getting it.

One of them forwarded the letter to Richard Marles (the Shadow Immigration Minister) which is a strange thing to do when a personal opinion was asked for. But it didn’t matter because although Marles replied, his reply did not answer the questions.

Four other Labor MPs responded to the letter but did not answer the questions. They did say it was important to treat boat people with compassion and fairness, in a dignified humane way. Well, maybe Labor could advance those ideas publicly.

Do any of you have any idea how cruelly people are treated in offshore detention?

If you understand how shocking things are on Manus and Nauru the answers to that voter’s letters might have been different.

But how many Labor MPs have been to Manus or Nauru? When was the last time any Labor MP visited Manus or Nauru?

Either you have not bothered to find out the facts, or you know the facts and don’t care. Either way, Labor should be ashamed of itself.

The Opposition has a chance to be the second-loudest voice in the country. So why are you so quiet about these things?

Labor supported the Australian Border Force Act, which makes it a criminal offence to disclose anything about conditions in detention, including instances of child sex abuse.

There is a defence in section 48, which permits disclosure for the purpose of reducing a serious risk to the life or health of a person. But Labor’s Shadow Minister seemed to be unaware of section 48, and instead defended the legislation by pointing to the more onerous provisions of the whistle-blower legislation.

The only available inference is that Labor supported the legislation without understanding it, and without regard to the obvious chilling effects which the legislation is bound to have.

If Labor actually believes that people in detention should be treated with dignity and compassion, it should not have supported the Australian Border Force Act.

But that’s the problem: viewed from outside, it looks as though Labor does not actually believe in its own rhetoric. In fact, it looks as though Labor does not believe in anything much at all.

If that is where today’s Labor Party stands, it will not long survive.

Labor today looks like a weak centre-right party which does not believe in itself. A party that believes in nothing except power will end up with nothing at all.

If Labor refuses to stand up for the principles it espouses, to articulate them and then argue for them, it forfeits its right to any political support.