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ALP is divided over new refugee policy that includes mandatory detention.

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Tuesday 3 December 2002


ALP is divided over new refugee policy that includes mandatory detention.


LINDA MOTTRAM: Federal Labor MPs go into a Caucus meeting in Canberra t oday divided over refugee policy. An apparently tense Shadow Cabinet meeting approved a new Labor policy last night but key Labor figures are angry that it doesn't ditch the concept of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.


After Labor went to the last election virtually undistinguishable from the Government on this volatile policy issue, those at odds with the new policy are set to argue in Caucus for a further softening of Labor's stance.


From Canberra, Louise Yaxley reports.


LOUISE YAXLEY: Some in the Labor Party have passionately argued for it to abandon mandatory detention, but they're matched by those who say such a policy would cost more votes than it wins. The strength of sentiment is summed up by the Labor frontbencher, Carmen Lawrence, who denounced mandatory detention at a rally in February.


CARMEN LAWRENCE: It's inhumane. It's brutal and demeaning to our fellow human beings. It's damaging to the asylum seekers and to our society.


LOUISE YAXLEY: Dr. Lawrence is from Labor's left faction, which is home to many of those most against mandatory detention, but it's far from exclusively a left versus right argument. The left's Laurie Ferguson, the spokesman on multicultural affairs, is a vocal supporter of compulsory detention, as he told AM earlier this year.


LAURIE FERGUSON: We can't really rely on many of these people to actually report. They will essentially disappear very quickly. Secondly, a number of countries that are held up to us as being good examples are countries where people aren't detained, but they essentially skip, disappear, never heard of again.


LOUISE YAXLEY: When it is revealed, the policy will confirm Labor's opposition to the long term locking up of women and children and it will aim to process all asylum seekers within a time limit of 90 days.


While it's not as hard line as Labor's previous policy, it won't satisfy all MPs. The Labor leader Simon Crean has gone to great lengths to consult widely within the Party. He told the 7:30 Report it's a balanced policy.


SIMON CREAN: I believe that we need to develop a lasting solution that secures our borders, and that's why I was up there arguing for issues like the coastguard, secures our borders, but in terms of the people who are asylum seekers, that we treat them in a humane and fair way, and that's what I'm committed to do.


It's getting those twin objectives, that I believe are fundamental to our approach, Kerry, and it's only us that are prepared to engage it.


LOUISE YAXLEY: The policy passed Shadow Cabinet last night. This morning it goes to the full Caucus. Some MPs want a week to consider it. That sparks concern from others who say the longer it drags on, the more damage the debate can do.


The Party's leadership hopes it will be passed today, and can be immediately made public but as promised, if MPs want more time, they can have it. Some, especially from the left, want a series of meetings, and it could be at least tomorrow before the policy is made public.


Labor insiders wanted the policy made public today because the Immigration Minister is set to make a statement to Parliament outlining the Government's position, including an apparent softening of its own, to extend the system of housing women and children outside detention centres.


The delay could help the Labor MP s from inner city electorates under pressure from the Greens, because they could use it to be seen arguing for a softer policy, even if they're eventually out-voted in Caucus.


LINDA MOTTRAM: Louise Yaxley reporting from Canberra.