On Sunday night, people met, in gatherings big and small, to light a candle for Reza Berati, the young man killed on Manus Island last week.
Large events organised by GetUp, with a range of other groups, were held in capital cities. Smaller local vigils were also held both in Australia and overseas. People were encouraged to share photos and stories about what they were doing and where, using #LightTheDark.
The vigils were held ‘for all asylum seekers who have suffered under our care’. The political goal was to call for:
- journalists and independent observers to have access to detention centres
- an independent inquiry into the facility
- closure of Manus Island Detention Centre.
Pictures were widely shared on social media and even featured in an ubiquitous BuzzFeed list, in a protest perhaps tailor-made for a new media landscape that prioritises performative reactions.
On the days before, rallies had been held, with familiar chants about freeing refugees and closing camps. The vigils, though, seemed different, more about shared sorrow and shame. The vigils were attended by many religious groups, and the notion of atonement seemed palpable.
But how can these deep feelings be translated into action? And what action should that be?
The vigils were organised by GetUp, with the Refugee Action Coalition, Amnesty International Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, First Home Project, The Welcome Group and Welcome to Australia. The glaring omission of RISE, the only group run by former refugees and people who’ve been in detention, may be why the political goals seem so modest.
RISE is clear about what action is needed: an end to mandatory detention and ongoing work toward a global solution. I’m certainly no expert in law or this area of policy, but listening to the very people that these policies have directly affected seems like a good place to start.
So what to do? During the Howard years, the goal was to get rid of Howard. Six years later, it is clear that this was not the right goal.
The only way to get real and lasting change on mandatory detention is to break the bipartisan support for mandatory detention, to target the party that started it. People will remain locked up until the ALP changes.
Framing discussions about people seeking asylum solely through the lens of Howard as boogeyman allowed the ALP to maintain the same policies, without political damage.
Rallies outside Abbott and Morrison’s offices are part of any protest, but focusing solely on the LNP will change nothing.
Having the ALP as a target means a different strategy. What would dissent look like if the target was Jason Clare or Ed Husic in Western Sydney? What would the strategy focus on if the goal was to change the ALP National Executive through union members pressuring their own leadership? What tactics would create divestment pressure on industry super funds?
The political battle would move from the inner city to the suburbs. Battles over crumbling infrastructure could become discussions about large corporates making profits out of locking people up.
If the goal remains getting rid of Abbott and Morrison, then that is the wrong goal. It was the goal last time – and yet another person has died. We are just repeating the mistake that let the ALP off the hook. The LNP will not budge on these issues, and its few moderate backbenchers are long gone. Without change in ALP policy, there will be no change.
I’ve been wondering about all those rallies and protests over a decade ago. Did making John Howard and Ruddock and Vanstone the baddies just paper over the failure of the ALP to make better policy? By making Abbott and Morrison the bad guys, is that just repeating that mistake? Shouting at Australians about refugees didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.
In her 2008 book Blind Conscience, Margot O’Neill forensically details the different strands of the refugee activist community, from Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR), to the Refugee Action Coalition, to ChilOut. Each one of these groups had different strategies and worked over many years to see the end of the Howard government, believing that this would end the suffering they had fought so hard to stop.
In the meantime, activists within the ALP also worked to change policy through the party structures. They were not successful. Nonetheless, they must be part of any strategy to target the ALP, particularly if Shorten is serious about democratising the party he leads.
Polling repeatedly says that asylum seekers are not in the top issues for Australians when they vote. So the idea that policy is being driven by some focus group response to swinging voters just doesn’t stack up. Sure, there are Australians who are racist and say terrible things on Facebook. But there are also thousands donating and volunteering to help people who have made it out of the camps. They find a fridge for young Tamil blokes who have nothing and can’t work. They fill out paper work, and teach English. They translate and fundraise.
Issues about infrastructure for people in the suburbs are very real, and the stresses thus caused can be fanned by political parties to divert from that lack of infrastructure.
If the target is the ALP, that becomes one of the ways to campaign: fliers at suburban railway stations spelling out that suburban money is paying big companies to lock people up far away, whereas a cheaper solution that could pay for more trains would be to help people here. That could drive a political momentum to lift the refugee intake considerably, while diffusing arguments about queue jumping.
Changing the family reunion rules would also create a degree of goodwill within ALP-held seats, thereby stopping nervous suburban MPs going on about boat arrivals.
Again, the only way to stop mandatory detention is to change the party that invented it.
Overland seeks to foster a discussion on strategies for refugee rights. Contributions can be submitted here.