labor must abandon
Type
Polemic
Category
Activism
Politics

Labor in vain: a new direction for refugee rights?

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

El Gibbs is a freelance writer with an unhealthy interest in Senate committees. She has written for New Matilda, Crikey and Overland; she’s on Twitter at @bluntshovels and blogs at www.bluntshovels.wordpress.com.

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Comments

  1. As an ALP member who agrees with your stance on this issue, I too get very frustrated.

    However, all of us on the left need a reality check. The bipartisan support for punitive “stop the boats policies” exists because 70% or more of the Australian people have said that’s what they want. This hasn’t changed for 13 years – 77% of people famously agreed with Howard, you might remember.

    It’s also likely that a slight majority of ALP voters also want to “stop the boats”. As long as this remains the case, the Labor party won’t change it’s policy.

    Instead of blaming this whole thing on the Labor party, let’s think about the question another way.

    What would it take to turn 70% into 50% or less?

    In an electorate of 13 million (of which 70% support “stopping the boats”), we would need to convince 3 million Australians to change their mind, just to get to a break even point.

    I don’t believe the ALP changing it’s policy alone will fix the broader issue of community support. In fact without community support for that, it would leave the ALP dangerously exposed. No Labor leader can ever wave a magic wand and suddenly get 3 million of people to change their mind. That requires a much bigger conversation and a broader campaign.

    • Was it ever asked why they agreed with “stop the boats”, it is time to really look at what is happening world wide and try to work towards a global resolution. Whilst we start to address the education issues of why are the boats coming here and how can we deal with that without fear. I personally enjoyed the” Hot Potato” film put together by the Asylum Resource Centre VIC it began the dialog we need to find out what the issues actually are. Try watching it if you haven’t yet.
      Sincerely
      Wendy F

  2. Most seem to forget the ALPs policy for the 2007 election and KRudds essay ‘Faith in Politics’. The ALP does not need to change 3 million minds. It was not necessary in 2007. I agree strong leadership, inspiring leadership, with propaganda, sound bites said with conviction, a media strategy is needed. The question is how do we get that from the ALP? Is it possible?

  3. Thanks for this El, an important antidote to the way that some try to paint the Coalition as qualitatively worse on the issue than Labor.

    However, I think a problem with your suggestion is that the harsh treatment of asylum seekers is actually not really about asylum seekers, but about the crisis of authority being experienced by the political class as a whole. It is no coincidence that the weaker the main parties feel politically while in government the harder they tend to go on the boats issue.

    Recall that when Abbott and Morrison felt flush with the election win late last year they tried to make the issue a quiet one that would fade away. But as the government’s popularity has dissipated (in historically quick time) they have tried to whip up their “tough” image.

    The same was true for Rudd: While he was popular the ALP hard heads who think that the working class are all vicious racists tolerated his “soft” stance. Then, when his popularity started to fade at the end of 2009 they got nervous and Gillard even came to power saying she would lurch to the Right (and did).

    We can go back even further to Howard’s troubles in early 2001.

    So unless you want to find a way to prop up and strengthen the authority of this government or a future ALP government (if one eventuates) then this is likely to come back as an issue again and again. It is hard to imagine that either major party will have an epiphany on the issue, because it is now so tied up with their realisation they have no social base on which to rest their authority.

    I think this means radicalising the struggle in terms of the politics (I don’t mean “radical” in some simplistic “let’s set fire to things” way). It means pointing to the fundamental political problems of the major parties and the fact they are trying to displace anger at politicians onto the asylum seeker issue. It also means being more upfront about the problem with the whole borders/national sovereignty argument.

    The other thing to point to is how this kind of policy can lead to tremendous political destabilisation. Abbott and Morrison look like they can’t even control a detention centre, let alone their precious borders. And the Indonesians have made them look even weaker and less able to manage things. We should welcome that weakness and instability, and use it to our advantage, which ever side is in power. That requires setting our sights higher than simply ending the bipartisanship (even though that may be a welcome side effect of such an approach). In a sense the politicians give us no other choice, precisely because for their futures the stakes are now so high.

  4. Great article, El. So many of us are trying to come to terms with what a winning strategy would look like, and I think you make a number of convincing points. But how do we get to a lasting shift within the ALP? I reckon that the only thing that can get us there will be a multi-pronged approach rather than a single focus. We need a serious political crisis for that to happen, to open up the space. There’s something happening in this country which is bigger than the issue of refugee rights, and I think it can be described best as the creeping authoritarianism of this government. While this is most visable in the way the Liberals have unfurled a campaign of persecution aimed at refugees, the same authoritarianism is playing out in a range of other areas, and it’s scary (delegitimising and represing unions, anti-protest and association laws, etc). And yet more often than not the ALP is acting like a dead fish, offering fuck all alternatives and failing to even bother to flap around most of the time.

    I’m excited by the potential of the March in March as the start of a serious anti-government movement, on the basis of linking a whole heap of issues under the one umbrella in a way that capitalises on widespread community anger against Coalition governments and pushes for some serious political changes from below. If you imagine for a moment how a serious anti-Abbott grassroots campaign could unfold, then surely this does not have to leave the ALP off the hook, but rather could open up a whole new political front that could translate into a much more emboldened push aimed at the ALP.

    Great article, El. So many of us are trying to come to terms with what a winning strategy would look like, and I think you make a number of convincing points. But what would be the conditions to even make a lasting shift to happen within the ALP possible? I reckon that the only thing that can get us there will be a multi-pronged approach rather than a single focus. We need a serious political crisis to even just open up the space. There’s something happening in this country which is bigger than the issue of refugee rights, and I think it can be described best as the creeping authoritarianism of Liberal governments. While this is most visable in the way the Liberals have unfurled a campaign of persecution aimed at refugees, the same authoritarianism is playing out in a range of other areas, and it’s actually quite scary (delegitimising and represing unions, anti-protest and association laws, etc). And yet more often than not the ALP is acting like a dying fish out of water, offering fuck all alterntives and failing to even bother to flap around most of the time.

    For this reason I’m excited by the potential of the March in March as the start of a serious anti-government movement, on the basis of linking a whole heap of issues under the one umbrella in a way that capitalises on widespread community anger against Coalition governments and pushes for some serious political changes from below. If you imagine for a moment how a serious anti-Abbott grassroots campaign could unfold, then surely this does not have to leave the ALP off the hook, but rather could open up a whole new political front that could translate into a much more emboldened push aimed at the ALP.

    I think there are also other avenues for refugee rights that are worth exploring. I don’t have any answers but I think we have to link with the broader race/migration/border/labour context. Moral outrage is powerful but the ‘politics of compassion’ also have their limitation. After all, our Pacific gulag system is part of the same political conditions that allow conservative pollies to ‘import’ exploitable ‘foreign’ labour on vastly degraded conditions in quite a deliberate way to undermine unions and working conditions. At the same time, the reaction from the union movement has on the whole only helped entrench prejudices about ‘them’ coming to take ‘our’ jobs, etc, and this ‘Aussie jobs for Aussies’ translates into insecurity that manifests itself in anti-refugee sentiment. So something desperately needs to happen in this space if we are to see any lasting change. I think Unions for Refugees offers some hope, though I think we need much bigger and broader politics of this sort within the union movement as a whole to truely open up this avenue.

  5. This same discussion is happening globally. Detention of one kind or another exists in most countries where asylum seekers land. Aren’t we just all a little narrow in our perspectives ? Viewing it through our own not unique experiences and prisms? The Eminent Persons report called for a regional solution. Gillard started down this track with the Malaysia swap. Domestic politics blew it apart . Political parties once shared humanitarian perspectives on these issues. Not any more. Any answers must include a determined effort to draw a global response to the increasing failure of nation states and the rising aspirations of people for a better life .

  6. Realist Lachlan is on the face of it, right. I would argue that Labor’s credibility as a party of conscience depends on a humane refugee policy. Then the 3 million will come on board. (pardon the Reithism). I would like to see all the refugee organisations agree on some basic points of policy. Unity in purpose is required.

  7. Lachlan, don’t dismiss the power of discourse. People believe the boats ‘need to be stopped’ because of the last 14 years of anti refugee policy and anti-refugee media. You can change public discourse if you have enough power, which as the main opposition party, the ALP does. Only the ALP and the Libs have significant ability to change public discourse. The ALP needs pressure both from outside and inside to change such discourse.

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