OPINION: My number is thirty three.

I’ll never know the exact number. I held the job of Immigration Minister for less than four months. In that time thirty three lives were lost that we know about. The youngest was ten weeks old. His name was Abdul Jafari.

I was handed his name on a post-it note and kept it on my desk for the rest of my time as Minister. I kept it there for one simple reason.

His story had to remain in my line of sight.

I may never have seen him or heard his voice, but the loss of his life could not be separated from the fact that those who cared for him believed risking his life with people smugglers carried a realistic chance that he would have a new life in Australia.

If the only people who would be affected by the decisions I took had been the asylum seekers who made it to Christmas Island, then I never would have supported and implemented the Regional Resettlement Arrangements.

Labor people don’t take delight in thumping the table and boasting about how tough we can be. We don’t trade principle or human rights for what we are told might be popular.

So no-one should ever believe the claim that decisions we took in office, or the decisions we are considering at our National Conference are somehow a triumph of pragmatism over principle. They are not.

We were part of the Refugee Convention from the beginning and I believe we should not lose sight of one simple aim: Our policies should help more people than ever before and every one of them should get here safely.

We know what happened last time. After the civil war in Sri Lanka the number of people using people smugglers increased sharply. We needed to change our policy settings quickly and we didn’t. The number of people putting their lives at risk kept increasing.

One boat capsized and bodies washed up on the shores of Christmas Island. Chris Bowen spent his time personally talking to families who had lost loved ones, while Scott Morrison complained about asylum seekers being allowed to attend the funerals of their own children.

Even in this tragedy people kept taking the risk. As long as their was any chance of a people smuggler being able to argue you would get a new life in Australia, the risk continued and more lives were lost.

Labor then put forward the Malaysia Arrangement. Straight away the loss of life started to fall. The Liberal Party teamed up with the Greens to spike the agreement and the number of lives lost went straight up again, and higher and higher.

Half of the lives lost in those six years were lost after that awful decision to destroy the Malaysia Arrangement.

In our final months in office, Kevin Rudd negotiated the Regional Resettlement Arrangements. They aimed to do one thing. To stop people smugglers from being able to credibly argue they could sell a new life in Australia.

We increased the size of the humanitarian program. The number of people smuggling boats heading to Christmas Island fell by 90 per cent.

The turn-back policy has not been the whole story or even the majority of the story in saving lives at sea.

It was Labor’s policy at the elections in 2001, 2004 and 2007. At the next two elections we argued it could no longer be practically implemented as that was the best available advice at the time. Clearly, that is no longer the case.

As Labor people, we instinctively want to help each person we see. That’s a good thing about us. And in most policy areas it leads to outcomes we can and should be proud of.

In this area, our policies don’t only affect the people we can see. We know, without doubt, if the trade in people across the Indian Ocean started again there will be a massive loss of life. We will never see those people. But there is no doubt that consequence would come.

Anything we can do which doesn’t carry those sorts of consequences should be pursued relentlessly. That’s why Labor should oppose Temporary Protection Visas, and why we should work tirelessly to get children out of detention centres.

We need to give a Labor government all the tools which can stop the people smuggling trade from restarting. That includes turning back the small number of boats which still try to make the voyage.

We need to be seriously working throughout the region to improve capacity and make a comprehensive regional approach a reality.

I wish there was a way of providing the maximum direct assistance to everyone who presents before us without it causing other, truly awful consequences.

But we’ve watched it now. We’ve seen ourselves act too slowly. We’ve seen our opponents act too cynically. And we’ve seen the loss of lives from people whose mistake was they believed someone who took their money and told them he could make them Australian.

In other areas of policy we often argue the evidence is in. It is here too. It might be easier if it wasn’t. But we now know the consequences.

And as someone who has sat with asylum seekers in the meal room on Manus, on the rocky ground of Nauru, and has been presented with the names of people who are lost forever, I believe Labor has only one option.

We must be able to prevent the people smuggling trade to Australia from resuming. That way we can welcome more refugees than ever before and every one of them can get here safely.

This opinion piece was first published in The Labor Herald on Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tony Burke