Yesterday I was asked to write an article for the Labor Herald, and I didn’t want to write it.

Today I’ve been hoping most of the day I’d be taken off the speaking list. 

The truth is, I was Labor’s last Immigration Minister and you have a right to hear directly from me.

About what that job involved, the choices that involved, and how that lends us to have to think very carefully when we use words like ‘compassion’, that we all mean, but we all need to know the exact context.

The number assigned to my time as Immigration Minister is 33.

I was there for fewer than four months and there were 33 lives that were lost on my watch.

When I first got the list I noticed, the list was only of ages, but one of them was 10 weeks old.

I remember asking my staff to go to the Department and get his name.

The staff came back and said ‘oh no, they can’t give you his name; you can’t use it in the media at the moment because the names can change and the details can change.’

I said ‘can you just tell them I don’t want to use it in the media.’

He was 10 weeks old, he died on my watch. I just want to know his name.

His name was Abdul Jafari.

I was given his name on a post-it note and I kept that post-it note on my desk until we lost office.

I kept it there for one very simple reason.

We have to show compassion not only to who is in our line of sight, but to everybody who is affected by our policies.

I was the Shadow Minister for Immigration before the 2007 election. 

I took to the election and to this conference a platform that the entire conference cheered. 

I changed our platform so that we stood for the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas. 

And I can tell you from my perspective, so clearly, which policies work and which policies don’t.

At the core is one principle: if a people smuggler is able to credibly argue to a desperate person ‘give me your life savings and I can get you to Australia and you will be an Australian one day.’

That desperate person, in good faith, will pay the money, take the risk and in too many cases, end up dead.

I want us to help more people than we've ever helped before. 

But I want every one of them to get here safely. 

Every single last one to get here safely.

In other policy debates we often refer to the line ‘the evidence is in’. 

On this one, the evidence is in. 

On coming to Government we know we will be tested – we know it.

More than being tested, what the Liberals will do is exactly what they did when I introduced the regional resettlement arrangements. 

They will bugle a message out there claiming and giving hope to smugglers ‘if you overwhelm it, it will be ok.’

And they did it to Chris Bowen with the Malaysia arrangement as well, before they did the deal with the Greens.

More than half the people that drowned during our time in Government drowned after the Liberal Party did that deal with the Greens. 

They will do that again and people will be given false hope, and the people smugglers will try to get a couple of voyages together. 

If we turn back those first few boats, and I’l tell you, if the only people in front of us were the people on those boats, if they were the only people in the line of sight, then I’d be arguing ‘just let them in.’

Because you want to help them.

But be in no doubt, if we allow a consequence of our policies to be that people smugglers can credibly argue they can sell someone the chance to be Australian, then good desperate people will say 'that’s worth the risk.'

Our compassion has to reach everybody our policies affect.

I implore the conference, and I don’t misjudge in any way the good motivations of people who’ve reached very different conclusions to me.

But I have no doubt whatsoever, if we give hope to the trade we will end up helping fewer people and hundreds will start the journey but never complete it.

Tony Burke