Tanya Plibersek in ‘witness protection’ over boats at Labor’s national conference

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Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek has drawn fire from her own side for being in “witness protection” over the ALP’s decision to adopt the Coalition’s policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

And fellow frontbencher Anthony Albanese, who has led the Left in fighting the ALP’s adoption of the boat turn-backs policy, declared in a fiery meeting of delegates that “doing nothing” on turn-backs was not an option.

Ms Plibersek and Senator Penny Wong – who are both members of the leadership group – voted by proxy for the Left motion to avoid publicly opposing leader Bill Shorten.

Mr Albanese, who publicly backed a motion to explicitly forbid Labor from performing boat turn-backs in government, told the Left delegates meeting that “unlike other caucus members I won’t just sit there and do nothing”.

“This [boat turn-backs] is a red line we cannot cross,” he said, adding that he would vote for the Left’s motion.

Those comments were understood by multiple sources in the room as criticism of colleagues including Ms Plibersek and Senator Wong.

However, Mr Albanese later told Fairfax Media that he had not been criticising his colleagues and that he had in fact praised others in the meeting who had a different view to him.

Queensland MP Terri Butler stood in for Ms Plibersek and ACT Senator Katy Gallagher stood in for Senator Wong.

Behind the scenes, Ms Plibersek has been under intense pressure from her political allies in the Left to publicly oppose the adoption of boat turn-backs.

But Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, who is seen by some in the party as a future leader and is a rival to Mr Albanese in the Left, has had to balance that pressure with the need to support Mr Shorten.

One Left delegate said Ms Plibersek had “barely spoken” on the issue during meetings and appeared to be in “witness protection”, to the disappointment of many political allies.

Another Left delegate said Ms Plibersek had “put her duties as deputy leader of the Labor Party first” and that she was “much more hardline than Albo [Mr Albanese] on asylum seekers”, though that delegate said that at least some in the Left understood the bind the deputy leader was in.

A third delegate said Ms Plibersek’s absence from public debate over the issue showed she was “not used to serious scrutiny”.

But an ally of Ms Plibersek’s said she had focused her energy, during negotiations over the policy, on doubling the refugee intake and securing additional funding for the UNHCR – both outcomes that were secured.

“She has been genuinely conflicted on turn-backs, as deputy the need for solidarity has been at the top of her mind. That’s why she hasn’t bought in to public debate at all, it wouldn’t have helped the leader,” the ally said.

The Left-aligned Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy union also backed Mr Shorten to defeat the motion to forbid turn-backs, and sections of the United Voice union also backed the Labor leader.