It feels like the divide between the political consensus in Canberra and the (growing) sense of anger and desperation among the public over the issue of refugees has never been starker. Right now the federal government is preparing to deport a group of 267 refugees, including babies and sexual assault victims, to offshore detention on Nauru. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Australians across the country are rallying against offshore mandatory detention, doctors are willingly breaking the law to speak out against the harm being done on Nauru and Manus Island, churches and hospitals are threatening mass civil disobedience, teachers are protesting against the disappearances of students, and state premiers, from all sides of politics, have called for a more humane approach to refugees.
Conventional wisdom since the Tampa affair in 2001 has been that a public fearful of being swamped by refugees has demanded tough border protection policies, pushing both Labor and the Coalition to the right as they chase xenophobic votes. It’s clear that logic, if it ever held, is breaking down. How else do we explain the contradiction between the brutality of the policies being devised and implemented in Canberra and the growing coalition of forces on the ground, including doctors, teachers and religious leaders? Or understand what is pushing political leaders like Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, elected by and accountable to the same constituents as our federal politicians, to publicly reject offshore detention and in doing so rebuke Bill Shorten, his federal leader and Victorian Labor colleague?
In 2014 Tad Tietze deconstructed the argument that there is some sort of voter consensus on harsh refugee policy. Tietze countered the popular thesis, put forward by well-known refugee commentators like David Marr, that there are ‘millions of votes to be exploited’ on the issue of refugees by carefully analysing polling data going back to 2001.
A 2011 Nielsen poll found that only a minority of Labor and Coalition voters supported offshore processing when Julia Gillard reintroduced the policy. Polling conducted last year in marginal seats showed that most voters preferred onshore processing compared to the Nauru and Manus Island ‘solutions’. And while the Tampa saga and John Howard’s victory in 2001 is regularly raised, the fact that Kevin Rudd won an election in 2007 promising to dismantle Howard’s harsh border policies, including the Pacific Solution, is generally neglected.
Rudd then went on to lose the 2013 election, despite instituting the harshest refugee policies ever implemented in Australia, including a promise that no-one arriving by boat would ever be settled in the country. These facts refute the accepted logic that refugee politics is driven by the demands of racist voters, and go some way to explaining the current political context that Premier Andrews has stepped into.
It’s important to acknowledge the limits of Andrews’ position. He has written to the Prime Minister offering to host the 267 refugees currently bound for Nauru in Victoria. He hasn’t explicitly opposed mandatory detention or offshore processing, nor has he outlined a specific policy approach that deals with refugees more systemically. It has also been reported that he voted for offshore processing at Labor’s national conference last year, opening him to accusations of hypocrisy. After all, these refugees did not materialise out of nowhere: they are the victims of a border management regime that is endorsed by both major parties.
However, Andrews’ position has evoked support across the nation. Premiers in South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland raced to match his commitment. With a voting public that has always been ambivalent to the harsh policy of turning back boats – only 21 per cent of Labor voters support the policy – and report after report showing the suffering and abuse refugees languishing in mandatory detention face, Andrews has offered a convincing alternative to the current malaise (for these 267 refugees, at least).
There are three key factors that underline how and why the small step forward offered by Andrews and other state premiers looks like such a dramatic intervention. The first is the overwhelming horror of current refugee policies – particularly the imprisoning of children, some of whom are allegedly the victims of sexual assault, on remote Pacific islands.
The second is the failure of anyone credible within federal Labor to speak up on the issue. Even those associated with the left of the party on a federal level, such as Anthony Albanese, have refused to say anything on the current crisis.
Third is the position of the refugee movement itself. While organisations such as the Refugee Action Coalition continue to put forward coherent demands to dismantle the entire framework of offshore detention and mandatory detention, the well-resourced and high-profile campaign organisations tend to focus on the ‘low hanging fruit’ question of removing children from detention. It’s a tactic designed to engage as many people as possible, boosting numbers at rallies, signatures on petitions, etc.
So when the movement’s loudest voices demand a specific goal – the end of children in detention, or even more specifically, the retention of these 267 refugees in Australia – it allows someone like Andrews, who backed offshore detention (and presumably still does), to emerge as the principled and courageous politician we’ve desperately been searching for.
Of course there are more cynical motivations behind Andrews’ intervention. It was always unlikely that the Turnbull government would respond by acknowledging their mistakes and outsourcing refugee policy to the Victorian government. Andrews’ demand was easier to make than, for example, arguing Labor should reject policies of offshore mandatory detention and boat turn-backs.
It’s also likely that electoral politics came into play. The Greens have slowly, yet deliberately, been making gains into Labor’s base across the country, including in Victoria. After losing the seat of Melbourne to the Greens in 2010, the Victorian ALP lost another heartland inner-city seat to the party at the last state election. At the upcoming federal election the Greens have designs on two more federal seats in Melbourne: Batman and Wills. The party’s candidate in Batman is a well-known local refugee activist; in Wills, the party has preselected a former refugee. Andrews, hailing from the Left of the ALP, would be acutely aware of the pressures facing Labor in terms of a rising Greens tide.
But do Andrews’ potentially cynical reasons matter? Isn’t it more important that he speaks up now, to smash the bipartisan consensus in Canberra? Yes and no. It’s important for us to understand what has pushed Andrews to this point and why his relatively conservative demand sounds radical.
But the cracks that have appeared in the ALP on this issue present the first glimmer of hope for refugee activists in many years. It shows that long-term refugee advocates like Robert Manne, who had all but given up and accepted the policy of offshore detention and boat turn-backs, were wrong. It shows that there is no public consensus driving our politicians to adopt increasingly harsh policies. It shows that our politicians are still vulnerable to well-organised campaigns of civil disobedience and protest, as well as the fear of electoral realities on their left flank.
Since the election of Tony Abbott in 2013 the refugee movement, like most progressive movements, has struggled with its relationship to Labor. Activists preferred targeting Abbott, Morrison and Dutton, hoping to mobilise the public through sheer hatred of those men. The result was a lack of clear engagement with Labor, leading to the disastrous national conference on 2015, where the party refused to oppose tow-backs. Labor Left sources are privately scathing of the internal ‘Labor for Refugees’ ginger group, writing it off as out-of-touch and unsophisticated.
What Andrews has done is illuminate a clearer path for campaigners. Progressives can no longer just direct their ire at Dutton, ignoring Labor and hoping internal forces ‘change them from within’. A sustained campaign targeting the party, particularly vulnerable MP’s like Plibersek and Albanese, is the best chance activists have of forcing the party to adopt a more just position.
It won’t solve all the issues around borders but if the immediate goal is a more compassionate and humane refugee policy, it’s more likely to pay dividends than appealing to the conscience of the Coalition government.