A comparison of Coalition and Labor government asylum policies in Australia since 2001 (February 2017 update)

Right of asylum Refugees Federal government Australia


It has been four decades since the first boats carrying Indochinese asylum seekers arrived on Australia’s shores. Since then public perceptions or concerns over unauthorised maritime arrivals continue to strongly influence government policy and to be an emotive and divisive political issue.

While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, there was a significant rise in unauthorised arrivals between 2008 and 2013. This placed more pressure on both Coalition and Labor governments to adopt and maintain measures that were seen to address border security concerns, combat people smuggling and ‘stop the boats’. In response to these pressures, governments from both major parties have supported increasingly severe deterrence measures in an attempt to reduce the number of unauthorised maritime arrivals (UMAs).

Given that there is bipartisan support for several of the Government’s current deterrence measures (such as offshore processing in the Pacific) it could be argued that the policy differences between the two major parties are minimal. In fact, there has been bi-partisan support for most of the policy responses and deterrence measures developed by successive Labor and Coalition governments since the 1970s, including the introduction of mandatory detention for all boat arrivals by the Keating (Labor) Government in 1991.

The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers established in 2012 to advise the Australian Government on ‘the best way forward’, acknowledged the complexities of the issues arising from the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, noting that there ‘were no quick or simple solutions’.

The Panel argued for an integrated suite of short-term and long-term proposals that included deterrence measures such as the re-introduction of an offshore processing regime. Long-term non-deterrence proposals included recommendations that the Government create better migration pathways and protection opportunities for refugees coordinated within an ‘enhanced regional cooperation framework’.

However, to date many long-term proposals along the lines of those recommended by the Panel have not been pursued by either of the major parties. It is argued that without long-term effective mechanisms in place, perceptions of ‘good refugees’ and ‘bad refugees’ will continue to be ‘pitted against one another’ in the public debate.

This paper provides a comparison of key Labor and Coalition asylum policies since 2001 when the Howard (Coalition) Government first introduced the practice of offshore processing to deal with previous waves of boat arrivals. It includes an overview of the recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in 2012 and analysis by experts in the field regarding the policy alternatives. A summary of the key policy similarities and differences is provided in an appendix.

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