On Sam Dastyari, asylum seekers and a big Australia

When you type “sam dastyari” into Google, the ‘people also search for’ feature spits out the following:

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Based on Dastyari’s powerful maiden speech in Parliament today, future Google results are unlikely to reflect similar identities.

When I first saw Dastyari was moving into the Senate after a stint as NSW Secretary of the ALP, I was disappointed. I do not know the man, yet he was someone who many members of the ALP had come to appreciate. Here was someone actually undertaking reform, not talking about it.

What really bugged me was the notion he was joining the Senate to pursue ‘policy’ and reshaping political debate. I scoffed when I first read this profile back in August, seeing it as a shallow attempt to justify the never-ending search for more power. A re-run of past ALP luminaries.

Now I consider that judgement misplaced. Dastyari’s speech centred on the most difficult policy for an ALP politician to address, immigration. While others within the ALP are known supporters of a larger population, his was the warmest embrace I have read:

“Friends, let me be clear, I unequivocally believe in a big Australia. Immigration adds to our national wealth. Immigration is nation building. Immigration makes us strong. The people who come here will drive Australia’s economic prosperity for decades to come. We are right to do so now.

Our conversation about immigration should start from the same optimism, the same activism and the same faith in the future which has been the key to our success as a nation for over 200 years. But it does not, and I believe it is no coincidence that a country whose national conversation about immigration is so poor is also one where we are far too willing to predict hard times and focus on the negative.”

Some may say actions speak louder than words. But these words are in themselves inspiration for policy. An Iranian-born man, representing Australia’s ability to integrate disparate people from all corners of the world, standing in the Australian parliament passionately arguing the case for a big Australia.

This is a most positive step forward for a political party tarred with the permanent memory of White Australia. Dastyari’s words crystallise the choice ahead. The ALP can look inward on immigration, as it did all too regularly in the past, or it can choose a ‘richer, stronger’ path forward. To continue a conversation “so poor” or recast that conversation in search of something better.

There is now a growing group within caucus who have seen the recent debate on immigration and population and made a very conscious choice to reject it. Bill Shorten flagged his support for a big Australia during the leadership ballot. Perhaps this has allowed others to speak up more openly. By passionately advocating a big Australia, Dastyari seeks to renew the policy debate and hopefully help move the ALP ever closer to better defining what a bigger population means for Australia and Australians.

Not content with tackling one area of immigration policy, Dastyari also addressed asylum policy. He hinted at this last week, highlighting the vote against Temporary Protection Visas. However this missive was personal, a clear reminder of what separates those in the ALP and those in the Coalition on the policies of asylum:

So let me put it plainly: I believe John Howard’s calculated response to the Tampa affair appealed to the worst in us. It may have helped win an election but it hardened my resolve as a then 18-year-old living the Australian dream in Sydney’s north-west.

Twelve years on and I believe we have not made nearly enough progress. The rhetoric of our national discussion about the so-called boat people still lacks a real sense of compassion. That is why I believe it is time for us to have a real conversation in this country about asylum seekers—a conversation that is not about the number of boats but about the names, the faces and the stories of the people they bring. A conversation that is not just about how we stop the boats but about what we can do to improve the situation of those so desperate that they would consider getting on those boats in the first place.

That conversation isn’t easy. The ALP is alone with the Greens on one side and the Coalition on the other, a government whose policies will forever push the boundary of what is acceptable. The simple fact Dastyari is prepared to stake out this position is a healthy sign for future policy debate, both within the party and for the country. It points to a progressive agenda, where the boundaries of asylum policy blur into economic development and global citizenship.

My image of Dastyari as a fixer, a machine man, albeit a reformer, remains. One does not simply become NSW Secretary of the ALP without a set of traits most people would be wary of. Action over time will change this perception. And have no doubt, the opportunity to act will come again in a big way. The “debate” over population will arise again within this term of government. Hopefully Dastyari et al will have laid the groundwork to ensure the conversation is not a revision of 2010.

Of all the policy reform claimed by the ALP since 1983 (Keating and the economy, Button and industry, Dawkins and higher education, Gillard and schools etc etc) there has yet to be a figure associated with radical achievement in the field of immigration and population. Perhaps Sam Dastyari is that figure. More likely, he isn’t, given the vagaries of the political system. Whatever the future holds, the final words of his maiden speech, “Friends, never forget where you came from”, are a poignant reminder to Australians of our shared history, a history where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else.

Well said Senator.

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